Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles hosted Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks last night at Kobo Stadium in front of a capacity crowd. The Eaglestation team described hardy souls who arrived early and were layered warmly for the long haul. It was cold enough that steam rose from the infield when they watered it down. Nobody except those bundled like explorers in the bleachers expected the game to last for hours, but it’s Opening Day. Baseball things happen every day.
Shuhei Fukuda led off for Fukuoka against Tohoku ace Takahiro Norimoto. Fukuda raced down the line to beat out a bobbled tapper, and a brand new Nippon Professional Baseball season was underway. Yuichi Honda followed with a strikeout swinging, but Fukuda skittered down to second in what amounted to a sac bunt without all that pesky contact. Seiichi Uchikawa joined the party with a quick poke past third base to Zelous Wheeler in left. He made a good play, but Fukuda was already flying home. Wheeler showed athleticism throughout the game, but he knew only a beam of light would beat Fukuda to the plate. Hawks took a quick 1-0 lead. Things eventually came to an end, but not before Yuki Yanagita drew a walk then scored to make it 2-0.
Tadashi Settsu gave up a quick hit to Takero Okajima, but Ginji hit a frozen rope to Nobuhiro Matsuda, who quickly spun to erase Okajima before he could hit the snooze bar and return to his pillow. A fly out to Fukuda ended the frame. 2016 seemed to be starting out the way Hawks things do in that Hawks sort of way. Baseball doesn’t like fans to get comfortable or cocky or complacent, but someone could be forgiven for feeling at least a little bit confident in the champs for a moment or two.
Akira Nakamura got on, got over on a bunt, and got to third on a single from Ayatsugu Yamashita before Fukuda knocked him in with a single of his own. Another free pass for Yanagita and the Hawks had a trio perched along the paths. Uchikawa hit a little dribbler to end the threat, but not before Hawks were up 3-0.
Things started to unravel when Eagles kept finding themselves on base in the 2nd inning. Toshiaki Imae sent one past Matsuda, and Wheeler flew to second. Eaglestation broadcasters reminded us that Eigoro Mogi hit back to back taters before the regular season, then he came up just short with a warning track fly to Yanagita. It was a perfect union of atmospheric conditions and an All-Star outfielder. Jonny Gomes debuted, drew a walk, and made it the second straight half frame with runners at every base. Kazuya Fujita came up to bat with a favorite walk-up tune, then whistled one into the outfield that sent both Wheeler and Imae home for dinner. Motohiro Shima took a walk to fill the bases again while Gomes zipped to third with a stomp. Okajima is in my notes and did something at this point, but this is not going to be any more pleasant if I try to find it. Ginji drew a walk to load the bases once again. Ageless Kazuo Matsui turned a fielding error by Kenji Akashi into another run. Wheeler popped one up between the moon and mercury, but Akashi rediscovered his glove while camping under it. Mercifully, a routine grounder ended an inning that saw 5 runs on 4 hits to put the Eagles ahead 5-3.
Akashi made quick firewood out of a bat for the first out in the top of the 3rd. Matsuda was rung up on a check swing after watching a few choice entrees pass on the conveyor. Nakamura worked a full count that included a fan making a great catch on a foul, but that was only one of his fan giveaways. He eventually drew a walk with an 11 pitch box of charcoal and a sketchbook. Kenta Imamiya joined the foul frenzy and worked a 1-2 count close to submission until Norimoto put him away. It took Nori almost 80 pitches to paddle through 3 innings, but he was finally in a groove.
Mogi led off the bottom of the third with a Baltimore chop (or more accurately a Miyagi tonkatsu), but Matsuda came in quickly to field it, and fired a seed. Gomes was briskly dispatched as well. Fujita sent a screamer down the line into right field to start the two out magic. Shima bounced a double off the wall sending Fujita home to make it an even half dozen eggs in the nest. Okajima flared a single into left to put Eagles at the corners. Ginji stepped in as a few last remnants of sun disappeared and the Mercury curled up for the night toward the bottom of the thermometer. After making a great catch of a foul with his poncho, a fan unhappily discovered that his phone had become a pocket fun of broken parts. Ginji drew a walk and the Eagles had another convocation on the paths. Matsui sent one out to Fukuda to end another shaky ride with Settsu. With three in the books, Eagles led 6-3.
Perhaps this is the moment when it might be appropriate to mention in passing that Settsu still puts too many (colorful language) runners on base. One keeps thinking of that Vine with the stack of biscuits on a puppy’s nose. At some point, sooner or later, that hound is going to have a snack. When it happens, that poor guy sits in the dugout with a sad Charlie Brown face and the Vince Guaraldi kicks in. Gotta feel for a fellow when it happens this early.
Yuya Iida took his place on the pitching butte, and things quickly slowed down for the Eagles. Using long relief after three innings in the first outing of a long season is an excellent reminder that it’s a long season. By the middle of the 4th in an afternoon game, the lights were on in the stadium.
Norimoto was going to have to hike a lot of hill to reach the top, but he had a nice lead, went about his business, and picked up 7 strikeouts through 5 frames.
Iida came back out for the 5th and promptly issued a free pass to Gomes. Giveaways have their place, but the Hawks pitchers were acting like a new supermarket. Gomes made his way to second, then Okajima worked a full count before sending a bloop splashing into unpatrolled waters between outstretched gloves in shallow left field. Gomes crossed the dish with a knife and fork. While Ginji patiently waited for his pitch, Okajima sped down to second. Ginji grounded out to Matsuda to end festivities, but not before Eagles had increased their margin to 7-3.
As the 6th unfolded, Norimoto made Matsuda his 8th strikeout. Nakamura could only watch as he became the 9th. Imamiya doubled past Wheeler to allow Hawks fans to imagine a rally. Yamashita flew out to Kaz Matsui to end that thought.
Akihiro Yanase came in to work the 6th. Fresh from his inning ending grab, Kaz worked 0-2 into 2-2 before cutting the air under a pitch. Wheeler also worked 0-2 into 2-2 before bouncing to Imamiya. Just when things seemed symmetrical, Imae sent one over a leaping Matsuda into left for a single. Mogi grounded out to start the music for Hawks’ Lucky 7.
Fukuda became the 10th strikeout victim. This meant a free drink for everyone in attendance at a nearby establishment, TRGE. According to the broadcasters, they have a lot of things to sip and slurp, but don’t have root beer. Before Lucky 7 for the Eagles, Norimoto rang up his 11th of the night.
Shinya Kayama came in for the 7th. Gomes worked a walk, then Louis Okoye made his NPB debut. Okoye became the first in Eagles history to debut at ichi-gun straight out of high school. He made his way to second before Shima struck out looking. It looked like Okajima would have to knock him in from 2nd before a wild pitch sent Okoye to 3rd. A moment later Kayama lost control again and plunked Okajima. Yanagita made a running catch to keep Kayama from being the first to put a run into the career record of Okoye.
Hiroyuki Fukuyama relieved Norimoto in the 8th before any more people questioned the sanity of a clubhouse full of coaches. Norimoto worked like a mule team, so naturally his replacement sang “one pitch one out” for an opening stanza. Quickly the universe balanced itself with a full count to Akashi before a strikeout. Then, because the baseball gods have a sense of humor, it was “one pitch one out” to end the inning with a Matsuda coda.
Yuito Mori brought a bucket, mop, and yellow caution cones to clean up things in the 8th. Kaz Matsui made contact 3 times and only whiffed once, but went 0-fer on a day when an 0-fer might hurt your feelings, but not your team. Yanagita flashed the leather for the second out. Fukuda made a nice catch and tossed the third out into the stands with a smile.
Masayoshi Fukuda replaced Wheeler. Ryo Hijirisawa replaced Kaz Matsui. Yuki Matsui took the mound for the 9th. Things weren’t dull when he spiked a wild pitch off the shoe of Shima before getting a routine ground out, pop up, and long fly ball from Barbaro Canizares to Okajima to end the ballgame. Eagles were alone for at least a little while with the best record in NPB after a 7-3 victory.
Official NPB Box Score.
It was the Eagles first regular season action in their beloved home park, after a plastic prairie was replaced with the green green grass of home. Laundry might have to wrestle the stains once in a while, but a new generation of knees will be grateful. Eagles have continued a series of renovations and improvements to make the fan experience even better too.
Join the Eaglestation crew for their third season broadcasting every home series in English to Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles fans all over the world.