The Eagles returned home in style and brought the Tohoku region something to cheer about on Friday.
Playing at Sendai's Kleenex Stadium Miyagi for the first time since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami struck the region, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles rode the pitching of Masahiro Tanaka to a 3-1 victory over the Orix Buffaloes before 20,613.
"We've had home games, per se, but actually we felt like we were on the road for 10-plus games," Eagles manager Senichi Hoshino said.
Tanaka, who promised the fans a victory the day before, delivered. The right-hander allowed a run on six hits and two walks in a 138-pitch effort to outduel Park Chan Ho in a game that lasted 2 hours 29 minutes.
Tanaka (2-0) struck out six, and held the Buffaloes to one hit through the first six innings.
The Eagles built a three-run lead on six, second-inning singles after Park retired the leadoff hitter. Three straight singles loaded the bases, and Masato Nakamura singled in a run. After a force-out at the plate, Ryo Hijirisawa singled in two more.
For four more innings, however, neither team had so much as a scent of a scoring opportunity.
Park (1-2) allowed nine hits in eight innings, while striking out four and walking none.
In the seventh, the Buffaloes finally got a runner as far as second. They got their first leadoff runner on in the eighth, when they scored their only run on two singles and a pair of fielder's-choice grounders.
Tanaka ended the inning with with a runner at second by striking out Buffaloes big man Takahiro Okada after falling behind 3-1 in the count.
Catcher Motohiro Shima said the key all day was staying aggressive.
"Maa-kun just challenged them," Shima said of the late-inning threats. "I wanted to challenge hitters, that's what he always wants to do."
Tanaka allowed a leadoff double in the ninth to Hirotoshi Kitagawa, but overpowered the last three batters to close it out as the sell-out crowd chanted its pitcher's name.
"Having all those people in the stands moved me," Tanaka said. "Pitching in this atmosphere, I felt the joy of being a ballplayer."
Hoshino had the bullpen ready but said he didn't intend to use it.
"I wanted him [Tanaka] to go all the way, he wanted to go all the way," Hoshino said. "I felt he could still get batters out, although he wasn't getting as many strikeouts as usual.
"Shima called a good game and that was a big part of today's victory."
And what a victory it was for the road-weary Eagles and their fans.
The first pitch was thrown out by golfer Hideki Matsuyama, a sophomore at Sendai's Tohoku Fukushi University, who was the surprise story at the Masters earlier this month as an amateur. He was assisted by the United States' ambassador to Japan, John Roos. After the win and a speech by Shima, the Eagles' players rep, the home team circled the field throwing signed baseballs into the stands.
"As Shima said in his speech, we have been traveling here and there for a month and a half," Hoshino said. "We made that trip up here to visit the disaster area before Opening Day.
"The people here have been waiting for us so long. They expect us to fight hard, and Tanaka responded to that today.
"We carry their wishes on our backs and it gives us strength. This day is something that will live on in my memories of the game."
What Hoshino would like to forget is his team's inability to score.
After six hits in the third inning, the Eagles' bats fell silent.
"I said we'd hear bats ringing today, and we did," he said, "but it was only for one inning. After that we just reverted to form. For the one inning it was special, however. The guys concentrated, sat back on breaking balls and tried to hit the other way.
"Park didn't give us much, but we took what he did."
Akinori Iwamura lined a hanging 2-0 fastball into center to get the Eagles started against Park. The right-hander retaliated against the next hitter with a running fastball that shattered Randy Ruiz's bat. Ruiz, however, muscled it into left for a single. Motohiro Shima lined a 2-2 slider to center to load them up for Nakamura.
The Eagles' No. 9 hitter lashed a high 0-1 cutter into left to put the local heroes in front. With two outs and the bases still loaded, Hijirisawa fouled off a couple of high fastballs before bouncing another up the middle to make it 3-0.
"It's nice for the home crowd to have the home team win," Orix manager Akinobu Okada said. "But I feel bad for our fans."
In Chiba, Takashi Ogino's two-out double drove in three runs to power the Chiba Lotte Marines to a 3-2 come-from-behind win over the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, who entered the day leading the Pacific League by a half-game.
In Yokohama, Shuichi Murata's two-out, sixth-inning, bases-loaded double off the wall in right put the BayStars ahead and they held on for a 7-6 victory over the struggling Yomiuri Giants.
The BayStars snapped a three-game skid in a game that saw 13 pitchers and 26 hits, while the Giants lost their fourth straight.
Marines ship Takehara out
The Chiba Lotte Marines on Friday sold outfielder Naotaka Takehara to the Orix Buffaloes.
Lotte's No. 4 pick in the 2004 draft, Takehara has a .205 career batting average and 17 homers in 274 games over seven seasons.
"I'll always treasure my memories of the fans here in Chiba," Takehara said in a statement released by Lotte. "Although I'll be in a different uniform, I'm looking forward to coming back here."