It's almost as if Yomiuri's Alex Ramirez never left home.
Putting aside the obvious--uniforms, teammates and locker rooms and paychecks--Opening Day for the Central League will find Ramirez in his usual spot, in left field at Jingu Stadium.
The Venezuelan called the stadium home for seven years, batting cleanup for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and, together with his new team, opens the season here today at 6 p.m. Former Swallows righty Seth Greisinger also moved to the Giants in the offseason.
So will it be a case of nostalgia or nerves?
"It's exciting," Ramirez, said during a Thursday practice ahead of Opening Day.
"Being here seven years, of course you feel kind of weird, because I don't know if I'm in the wrong place," said Ramirez, who will cover Jingu's newly expanded outfield.
"Should I be over here or over there [The Swallows' side]? But coming here with this organization--everything's good."
Ramirez admitted he had his former teammates on his mind. "I'm pretty sure those guys want to see me, and I want to see those guys," he said.
The Giants, who also added closer Marc Kroon from the Yokohama BayStars, improved their offense and pitching with the additions. Now, it's time for those players to prove their value for the defending CL champions.
"We've all worked hard as a team to get ready for tomorrow since Feb. 1, so everything starts tomorrow," said Yomiuri skipper Tatsunori Hara.
"Whether you had good numbers from last year or bad numbers, it's all at zero now. We have some new players and we've tried to improve our team, and now we're going to start the season.
"Of course our goal is to be the best team in Japan."
As for changes, Yakult has its share. Even Ramirez might have a hard time identifying all the new Swallows.
"We have a lot of new players and a lot of young players, but they've done all we've expected of them during camp," skipper Shigeru Takada said.
"With young players, half of you is anticipating good things, and the other half is waiting for the unexpected.
"Some of the players will play above expectations and some won't, but we're going to go with these young guys."
Adam Riggs and Aaron Guiel figure to power the heart of the lineup, with all-star Norichika Aoki helping set the table. They will, however, miss Ramirez and Greisinger.
"This is a good matchup to start the season," Takada said. "They took our No. 4 hitter and our ace pitcher, so of course we want to go at them hard."
For the first time ever, the reigning Japan Series winners are from the CL, but don't hold the CL pennant.
The Chunichi Dragons, who finished second in the league last year and swept their way through the Climax Series, won it all--except the league title.
The Dragons take on the Hiroshima Carp at Nagoya Dome at 6 p.m., while the Hanshin Tigers face Yokohama at Kyocera Dome Osaka, also at 6 p.m. But the focus will be on the Giants, who had the worst preseason record of all 12 teams at 2-10-13.
"It wasn't good at all," Ramirez said about Yomiuri's early spring struggles. "I don't come here to be the MVP of spring training.
"I come here to get ready. And everybody's ready and I think it's going to be a different story from tomorrow on."
Iwakuma blanks Buffaloes
The Eagles took a long time to get their first win this season. Their second made club history.
Hisashi Iwakuma (1-0), whose last shutout came when he was pitching for the Kintetsu Buffaloes, blanked Orix on a two-hitter as the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles earned their second consecutive win 2-0.
It's the first time the club has posted back-to-back shutout wins.
Iwakuma struck out seven with no walks, and Takeshi Yamasaki's RBI single in the first gave the Eagles all the runs they would need.
Iwakuma dominated to pick up his first shutout--and third in his career--since 2004.
"I had chances last year to get a shutout, but I let them get away. Today, I was able to focus and I also didn't walk anyone," Iwakuma said.
Orix starter Chihiro Kaneko (1-1) suffered the hard-luck loss, stopping his personal seven-game winning streak dating back to last season.
In the other Pacific League game:
FIGHTERS 1, LIONS 0, 10 innings: Pinch-hitter Shinji Takahashi laced a single to right field with the bases loaded and one out in the 10th inning as Hokkaido Nippon Ham edged Saitama Seibu for a walk-off win at Sapporo Dome.
Nippon Ham's Yu Darvish and Seibu's Hideaki Wakui (0-2) were locked in a pitchers' duel, but Darvish got the hook after nine innings. Wakui walked the first man he faced in the 10th and issued intentional passes to two batters after a sacrifice bunt.
It was the first walk-off hit of Takahashi's career.