The curtain finally came up on the 2011 NPB season Tuesday with a full slate of six games taking place, and the Rakuten Eagles gave their home fans in Tohoku something to finally cheer about.
A month after a large earthquake and deadly tsunami ravaged parts of northern Japan, all 12 Central and Pacific League clubs were in action in season-openers that were bumped back from their originally scheduled March 25 date, with some being changed to day games to conserve electricity.
At QVC Marine Field in Chiba, a crowd of 22,525 showed up on a sunny, windy afternoon to watch the Japan Series champion Marines take on the visiting Eagles, who won it 6-4.
The game featured the two teams most affected by the events of March 11. The parking lot of QVC Marine Field in Chiba was cracked and flooded while the Eagles' home ballpark in Sendai suffered structural damage from the 9.0-magnitude earthquake.
The occasion brought out a large media contingent, with CNN, AP TV and The New York Times among the outlets covering the emotional opener. Also in attendance were best-selling author Robert Whiting, player agent Don Nomura and NPB Commissioner Ryozo Kato. Chiba Mayor Toshihito Kumagai addressed the crowd prior to the game and a moment of silence was observed. Both teams wore black ribbons on their arms.
Appropriately enough, Tuesday's game was delayed in the fourth inning when a 6.3-magnitude earthquake centered in Fukushima shook the stadium, just hours after another large aftershock had rocked the Chiba area.
The Eagles, under new manager Senichi Hoshino, scored a spirit-lifting victory, keyed by Motohiro Shima's two-out, three run home run in the seventh inning and a solid outing on the mound by ace Hisashi Iwakuma, who was celebrating his 30th birthday.
"There are 143 games left," Shima said after the game. "One by one, we will play those games and try to put smiles on the faces of the people (in Sendai)."
Iwakuma, who returned to the Eagles after failing to reach a deal on a contract with the Oakland A's in the offseason, allowed four runs (three earned) over eight-and-a-third innings. He gave up seven hits and struck out four.
A three-run homer by Kazuya Fukuura in the bottom of the ninth off Iwakuma made it a two-run game and ended the right-hander's outing. American Ryan Speier, a former Colorado Rockies reliever, came on to get the final two outs for Rakuten.
"We really battled together to get this victory," Iwakuma said. "I was able to have a pretty good outing and Shima hit that home run in the perfect situation."
"I was hoping to finish it off," Iwakuma added, who said he didn't even notice the earthquake in the fourth inning with Lotte's Saburo Omura at the plate. "I'm glad we can take this win back to the fans in Sendai."
Marines starter Yoshihisa Naruse, whose strong performances in the postseason last year played a large part in third-place Chiba winning the Japan Series, looked sharp in the opener. The 26-year-old lefty struck out nine through seven innings and did not walk a batter. He was charged with four runs on six hits.
"I blew the game with that one pitch (to Shima) and there's no excuse for that," rued Naruse.
The Eagles this season feature two Japanese players returning after stints in the major leagues. Former Seibu Lions shortstop Kazuo Matsui went 1-for-3 with a single hitting in the leadoff spot in his first NPB game since 2003, and ex-Yakult Swallows third-baseman Akinori Iwamura was 2-for-4 with a pair of singles. Iwamura last played in Japan in 2006.
"We want to be able to give a good report to the fans in Sendai," Matsui had said prior to the game. "What we actually saw (when the team went back to Tohoku after spring camp) was worse than we could ever imagine. No words can describe it. The people at the evacuation centers were trying to show they were in good spirits and that really encouraged us."
In other games played on the delayed Opening Day, the Lions trounced Yu Darvish and the Nippon-Ham Fighters 12-3 at Sapporo Dome. Seibu ace Hideaki Wakui outdueled Darvish, who gave up seven runs on seven hits through seven innings. He whiffed nine.
At Kyocera Dome, the Softbank Hawks and Orix Buffaloes played to a 12-inning 2-2 tie.
In the Central League, Hisayoshi Chono drove in five runs on a 3-for-5 night at the plate that included a home run as the Yomiuri Giants whipped the Swallows 9-2 in Ube.
In a battle of teams who finished last season at opposite ends of the standings, the BayStars scored a ninth-inning 5-4 walkoff win over the reigning CL champion Chunichi Dragons in Yokohama, and the Hanshin Tigers topped the Hiroshima Carp 7-4 at Koshien Stadium.