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Friday, March 23, 2012

NPB, players embrace normalcy ahead of upcoming season


Staff writer

Fans in the stands supporting their favorite teams and players this spring signalled more than just the return of baseball. It was the beacon of a slight return to normalcy.

News photo
2011 Sawamura Award-winning pitcher Masahiro Tanaka KYODO

Last season, spring training games were played in stadiums completely devoid of fans and under the pall of an eerily deafening silence.

This was in the initial aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake, when NPB was still struggling to find out where it fit in the nation's healing process.

Japan hasn't forgotten the lessons of that day, nor completely gotten over the tragedy. The country is still moving forward as the task of recovering from the terrible events of March 11, 2011, continues.

One part of things getting back to normal is the return of the sights and sounds of Japanese baseball. Unlike last year, when the start of the season was pushed back, things have progressed normally this year.

Though, on the eve of the first anniversary of last year's tragedy, NPB's best players took time out of their schedules to help raise money for the affected regions by staging a charity game against Taiwan at Tokyo Dome. Japan routed Taiwan 9-2.

"I was only watching from the bench, but I thought the players really came through," said Fukuoka Softbank Hawks manager Koji Akiyama, who served as the Japan skipper for the game. "They will enter the season soon, and I think that they can give the victims some encouragement by playing at their highest level on the field."

News photo
2011 Pacific League MVP Seiichi Uchikawa KYODO

The starting pitcher for that game was Masahiro Tanaka, ace of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, who assumed the title of best pitcher in Japan after Yu Darvish left to join the Texas Rangers in MLB.

"I was chosen three years ago (to play for Japan in the 2009 World Baseball Classic)," Tanaka said after the game. "But my status is different from then. I was fortunate to be selected as the starting pitcher."

Tanaka is seen as Darvish's successor as NPB's ace for good reason. He outpitched Darvish last season, finishing 19-5 with a 1.27 ERA and 241 strikeouts.

While Tanaka will begin the year regarded as the best player, the Central League's Yomiuri Giants may be the best team.

The Kyojin gorged themselves in free agency, signing pitchers Toshiya Sugiuchi and D.J. Houlton and slugger Shuichi Murata among others.

While the Giants look to be the best bet in the Central League, the Pacific League picture is murkier.

Akiyama's Hawks coasted to the 2011 pennant, but lost a lot of talent, like Houlton and Sugiuchi.

On the other hand, the other five PL teams didn't do much to improve their own rosters.

The Japanese baseball season is scheduled to begin March 30.

For the complete NPB schedule, team rosters, and other information, see the Japan Pro Baseball Fan Handbook & Media Guide by Japan Times columnist Wayne Grazyck.



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