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Emotional start: Eagles give lift to Tohoku by downing Marines in quake-delayed season opener

by Jim Allen (Apr 13, 2011)

In a season delayed by the power and fury of nature, it was perhaps fitting that the earth shook on Opening Day.

The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, whose home town of Sendai was devastated by natural disaster a month ago, won an emotional 6-4 victory over the Chiba Lotte Marines on Tuesday at QVC Marine Field. The season's first game, pushed back by 18 days, was delayed for two minutes by an earthquake in the bottom of the fourth inning.

"I didn't even notice the quake. It's hard to tell with the wind blowing and all," said Eagles ace Hisashi Iwakuma, who went 8-1/3 innings for the win.

The right-hander, who surrendered four runs on seven hits and two walks. He allowed the Marines to make it close in the ninth on Kazuya Fukuura's three-run homer, but new import Ryan Speier retired two batters for the save in his Japan debut.

Iwakuma and Marines starter Yoshihisa Naruse were locked in a 1-1 duel until Eagles catcher Motohiro Shima blasted a three-run homer in the seventh inning.

"I don't hit enough home runs to know what one feels like off the bat," Shima said. "I knew it was gone only by the reaction of the crowd when I got to first base."

Despite a 1 p.m. weekday start mandated by the shortage of electricity and a morning quake that disrupted transportation in the area, the game attracted a crowd of 22,525, some traveling from Sendai by overnight bus.

"It was a long trip and there were two earthquakes since the time we left," said Yoshiko Fujimaki, who attended the game with her son and daughter.

"We got to Shinjuku at 5 a.m., and we were in Chiba by 7 a.m., so this morning's earthquake didn't affect us. We'll be here tomorrow, too."

The Eagles will play their first two home series in the Kansai Region and aren't scheduled to return to Sendai until April 29, but Iwakuma felt at home.

"The game really felt like we were playing our first game in Sendai," he said.

He surrendered the lead in the fourth inning on an error by Shima after Marines speedster Takashi Ogino put himself at third base with one out.

Playing for the first time since a knee injury curtailed his sparkling rookie season last May, Ogino reached on a leadoff single and stole second. With calculated disregard for left fielder Toshiya Nakashima's arm, Ogino absconded with third base on a fly ball to deep left.

On a grounder to third, Ogino sprinted home. The throw from Iwamura beat him to the plate, but Shima lost the ball in the collision and was charged with an error.

"That guy is so fast, he [Shima] really didn't have time to block the plate properly," Eagles manager Senichi Hoshino said. "Of course, Shima made up for his mistake, and that's what you want to see."

The game suddenly appeared to be on the brink of unraveling for the Eagles. With Kim Tae Kyun on second base after Shima's error, Toshiaki Imae reached on a two-out infield single. Saburo Omura walked in an at-bat interrupted by the earthquake, but Iwakuma got Fukuura to strand three runners.

The Eagles tied it in the sixth.

Nakashima led off with a double, went to second on a sacrifice by Kazuo Matsui and scored on Ryo Hijirisawa's sacrifice fly to center.

Naruse lasted seven innings. He struck out nine without a walk, but allowed four runs on six hits.

"A lot of different things were going on in my mind as I took the mound, but I was able to pitch without rushing," Naruse said.

"I am really happy to be able to play baseball again. It's been so long since I've been in a game with such a big crowd.

"I blew the game with that one pitch. There's no excuse."

The Eagles made it 6-1 in the eighth on an RBI double by Takeshi Yamasaki and an RBI single by Yosuke Takasu.

Iwakuma cruised after Shima's blast, but Fukuura's one-out homer in the ninth ushered Speier into the game.

"With all the buildup, there was a lot more riding on this game than just the win or a loss. It was an emotional game," said Speier, who was pitching in the independent Atlantic league last year.

In Yokohama, the BayStars walked off 5-4 winners over the Chunichi Dragons as last year's Central League cellar dwellers got past the defending champs.

Pinch-hitter Yuta Naito won it with an RBI single off super setup man Takuya Asao. The win pushed Yokohama above .500 for the first time since 2007.


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