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Family was the dominant theme in NPB last week.

The Japanese baseball world received some stunning news on Thursday, when it was revealed Yomiuri Giants infielder Justin Smoak was leaving the team, and Japan, in order to be with his family.

Justin Smoak left the Giants last week in order to be with his family during the pandemic.  | KYODO
Justin Smoak left the Giants last week in order to be with his family during the pandemic. | KYODO

Smoak, who was in his first NPB season, has been separated from his family, who are in the U.S., since arriving in Japan in April due to the ongoing travel restrictions in place because of COVID-19.

At some point, the situation became untenable for the 34-year-old. The Giants tried to find a way to reunite the family, but the pandemic made it impossible. So Smoak returned to the U.S. last week, apologizing to his teammates and thanking the team in a statement.

On Friday, his wife, Kristin, posted a video on Twitter of Smoak returning home and surprising his two daughters.

“So Justin made a terribly tough decision,” she wrote on Twitter. “It started to become obvious that we were not going to be able to get to Japan any time soon — if ever. So with support and understanding from the team (who were nothing but amazing to our family) he decided to come home.”

Smoak’s decision is a stunner, as it comes in the middle of the season for a team that is tied for second place in the Central League and trying to keep the Hanshin Tigers within striking distance. Smoak has also been playing well, with a .272 average and seven home runs in 34 games after joining the team late due to Japan’s travel restrictions.

It’s also interesting from a cultural standpoint. As former Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles general manager Marty Kuehnert pointed out, Japan is a nation where some company workers with families can be relocated across the country with little notice and be expected to just adapt.

Japanese baseball players also do not seem to take as much, if any, time away for family matters as their MLB counterparts — though even in MLB, the only major U.S. league with a paternity leave policy in place since 2011, it’s only become somewhat common recently.

Kuehnert recalled that when Giants legend Sadaharu Oh’s father died in 1985, Oh didn’t even miss a game. He left the team after one contest to catch a flight to attend the wake and took a bullet train the following day to rejoin the club for the next night’s game.

Being separated from family can be hard for NPB’s foreign players. As most have their permanent homes in North or Central America, the time difference means even setting up calls or video chats can take some planning. While many players’ families often come to Japan during the summer — if not the spring — that will not be an option again until Japan opens its borders wider.

That separation was on the minds of the Seibu Lions’ foreign players on Sunday — Father’s Day. Prior to their game that afternoon, the team surprised the players during batting practice by playing a video on the scoreboard that featured messages of support from their families back home.

Caught off guard, a few players could be seen tearing up as they watched.

“That’s probably the first time in my life I’ve had those feelings and cried on the field like that,” pitcher Zach Neal was quoted as saying by Sankei Sports.

As for the situation on the field, the Giants are now without a switch-hitting power threat in their lineup. With Smoak gone and Eric Thames suffering an Achilles injury in his first game, the Giants have lost both of their most high-profile offseason signings before the All-Star break.

The Kyojin began moving forward over the weekend, winning two out of three on the road against the Tigers to pull within six games of first place.

Elsewhere around the CL, the Hiroshima Carp and Yokohama DeNA BayStars played a series at Tokyo Dome that was basically a three-game festival of scoring runs.

The Carp won the first two games 7-4 and 12-11 before DeNA avoided a sweep with a 10-8 win Sunday.

The clubs combined for 10 home runs at the Big Egg, where the BayStars were the home team since their ballpark, Yokohama Stadium, is unavailable due to it being a venue for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. DeNA’s Tyler Austin went deep twice, with a solo shot on Saturday and a grand slam on Sunday.

The Tokyo Yakult Swallows won two of three against the Chunichi Dragons in the other CL series.

In the Pacific League, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles were forced to make room for the red-hot Orix Buffaloes at the top of the standings.

Orix, fresh off winning the interleague crown, rolled into Sendai and won two games — the middle game of the series was rained out — to move into a tie with the Eagles for first place. The Buffaloes are firing on all cylinders and currently on their first eight-game win streak in 10 years.

Elsewhere around the PL, the third-place Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks lost a game and tied two others against the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, while the Seibu Lions and Chiba Lotte Marines split two games before finishing tied in the third.

Another first impression

Shohei Kato sure knows how to make an entrance.

Kato was recently traded from the Marines to the Dragons and introduced himself to his new fanbase by hitting a home run on the very first pitch he saw with his new team on Friday. He did the exact same thing in his first at-bat for the Marines seven years earlier.

Per Sports Nippon, Kato is the first player in NPB history to homer on the first pitch of his first at-bat with two teams.

Long time coming

The Buffaloes are beginning this week at the top of the standings, albeit tied with the Eagles. Still, for a team in the midst of a run of six straight losing seasons, it’s quite the accomplishment.

It’s also been awhile. The last time the Buffaloes breathed the rarefied air of the league summit was all the way back in July 2014. That was also the last time Orix ended the season with a winning record and the last time the club reached the Climax Series.

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