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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

News photo
Back to work: Rakuten's Motohiro Shima, right, Nippon Ham's Kazuya Murata and the rest of the NPB are slated to begin the season on Tuesday. KYODO PHOTO

SPORTS SCOPE

Japanese baseball finally ready to get season under way


"Gambaro Tohoku.''

Jason Coskrey

A patch with those words will be worn on the sleeve of every member of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles this year while the rest of the NPB will wear a patch that reads, "Gambaro Nippon," subtle reminders of the important things in life.

Professional baseball returns Tuesday, poised to follow the example set by the high schoolers at the National High School Invitational Tournament at Koshien Stadium last month and provide a distraction while restoring a small bit of normalcy to the nation.

NPB teams have been mostly out of sight recently, playing practice games in empty stadiums and venturing into the public eye only for 12 charity games April 2-3.

Tuesday marks an Opening Day that was supposed to have happened 18 days ago, before real life intervened.

The devastation of March 11 won't soon be forgotten, but the Eagles are hoping to give their battered region something to feel good about.

They'll likely be the sentimental choice of many as they try to follow in the footsteps of the 1995 Orix BlueWave.

The BlueWave that season were led by a sweet-swinging star named Ichiro Suzuki and helped galvanize the Kansai region after the Great Hanshin Earthquake with a triumphant march to the Pacific League pennant.

Eagles manager Senichi Hoshino has a pair of aces in his hand in Hisashi Iwakuma and Masahiro Tanaka. His lineup got an injection of fresh blood over the winter in Kazuo Matsui and Akinori Iwamura, who return to Japan after lengthy MLB sojourns that saw both play in the World Series.

The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks look more equipped to win the PL title, having beefed up their lineup with Seiichi Uchikawa and Alex Cabrera to match a pitching staff led by reigning PL MVP Tsuyoshi Wada and Toshiya Sugiuchi.

Yu Darvish and the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters should also make their presence felt while the defending Japan Series champion Chiba Lotte Marines will try to work their way into the mix.

In the Central League, the triumvirate of the Chunichi Dragons, Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants are expected to battle it out for supremacy.

All three have question marks, however, and the Tokyo Yakult Swallows will be waiting to take advantage of any missteps to claim a spot in the Climax Series, if not the outright pennant, for themselves.

The NPB made the right call in delaying the season, but it's important the game returns.

Baseball is ingrained into the fabric of Japan and touches many parts of the nation's culture and psyche.

Still, compared to relief efforts, determining the Japan Series winner isn't really that important.

The important thing is going to be the journey to that point, during which the sport can do its part to help the country heal through fundraising or just by giving people something to smile about.

Because in the end, a small patch on every sleeve, will signify more than the banner the eventual Japan Series champions unfurl in November.



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