TOKOROZAWA, Saitama--While it is not the most significant date on the baseball calendar, Opening Day is the one we wait the longest for.
The wait ends this afternoon, when the Pacific League kicks off the 2008 season with games in Fukuoka, Sapporo and Tokorozawa, where right-hander Hideaki Wakui will go for the host Saitama Seibu Lions.
"Whatever team you play against, Opening Day means a chance to put your team in front," Wakui said Wednesday at Seibu Dome. "It's the first game. You want to get that first hitter, get him out, get your team going in the right direction as early as possible.
"I'm not nervous, but it's not until tomorrow. Come to think of it, I don't get that nervous."
Wakui and the Lions will take on the Orix Buffaloes in Seibu's resurfaced park, but Wakui will check the results in Sapporo, where rival right-hander Yu Darvish will start for the two-time PL champion Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
"I don't think we're quite at the same level yet," the 21-year-old Wakui said of the friendly rivalry between himself and Darvish.
"Anyway, I just have to take care of my opponents here. When this game is over, I'll check to see how he's done. It would be great if we both win."
Wakui, who led the PL with 17 wins a year ago--two more than Darvish--may have wished to face his Japan teammate on Opening Day, but he will have to settle for getting the Lions, fifth last year, back on track against Orix.
Wakui's opponent today will be unheralded right-hander Chihiro Kaneko, who heads up manager Terry Collins' injury-struck rotation.
With ace Hidetaka Kawagoe slated to start the Buffaloes' home opener on Tuesday, Kaneko will lead a trio of relative no-names into battle. Shin Nakayama, 26, is slated to go Saturday after the league takes Friday off, with Kazuki Kondo pitching on Sunday.
Nakayama and Kondo have five PL wins between them, one shy of Kaneko's total in seven starts last year. "He's a good pitcher," said Collins, who had no illusions about his club's task. "Wakui chewed us up and spit us out several times last season, so we've got our work cut out for us."
The youngster went 4-0 in four starts against Orix, allowing eight runs in 33-1/3 innings, while striking out 29.
Wakui, however, will have to contend for the first time with former teammate Alex Cabrera, who jumped to Orix afte r seven seasons with Seibu. The Venezuelan adds to the powerful production potential of Tuffy Rhodes and Greg LaRocca.
"It's going to take an effort from all 28 [players]," he said when asked about getting to start the season with the "big boys."
Besides Cabrera wearing the Buffaloes' navy blues, the other new look is the Seibu surface. The new artificial grass is laid out in square panels that looked as if they were bought at--as one Orix coach said--"a 100 yen store." The turf is guaranteed to please no one except batters, whose slow rollers and bunts take absurd turns to follow the carpet's grain.
At Sapporo Dome, the PL's two best teams a year ago renew their rivalry as the Chiba Lotte Marines send Hiroyuki Kobayashi to the mound for his first Opening Day start, against Darvish.
Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome will be the venue as last year's third-place finishers, the SoftBank Hawks, host the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, who finished a surprising fourth. SoftBank southpaw Toshiya Sugiuchi will be matched against often-injured Eagles ace Hisashi Iwakuma.