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[NPB NOTEBOOK] Roki Sasaki Fans 11 in Excellent First Start of Season

Relying on a blazing fastball, 21-year-old Marines right-hander Roki Sasaki had an impressive 2023 debut against the Fighters.

Fresh off helping Japan win the World Baseball Classic, Roki Sasaki of the Chiba Lotte Marines was back to his usual dominant self in his first start of the 2023 season on Thursday, April 6.

The hard-throwing right-hander pitched in two games for Japan at the WBC. He earned the win against the Czech Republic on March 11 and ended up with 11 strikeouts over two games. But his 7⅔ innings pitched was less than what he would have had in a normal preseason.

There were no signs of rust when he took the mound for a rare Thursday afternoon game against the Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters at a blustery Chiba Marine Stadium.

Sasaki gave up a first-inning single to Chusei Mannami but was otherwise unhittable. He finished with 11 strikeouts in six innings, giving up one hit and no walks on 80 pitches for his first win of the season.

"I wasn't really sure what sort of condition I would be in but I was able to pitch well," Sasaki said. "After I gave up that first hit, I was able to settle into a rhythm and pitch the way I wanted to."

Relying on a wicked forkball and a fastball that reached as high as 164 kph (101.9 mph), Sasaki was dominant and in control throughout. He struck out the side in the fifth, fanning Kotaro Kiyomiya, Ariel Martinez and Daigo Kamikawabata.

At the plate, Shogo Nakamura went 3-for-4 and drove in the first run of the game on a double in the first inning.

"We wanted to get Roki some run support early," Nakamura said. "He's a great pitcher who gives it his all so we always want to support him."

The Marines were swept in their season-opening series against the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and then took all three from Nipponham at home to improve to 3-3 on the season.

Roki Sasaki pitches in his first game of the 2023 season. (KYODO)

Sasaki Seeking Success in NPB

After tasting victory in the WBC, Sasaki said he hopes to help Lotte reach the pinnacle.

"I was able to experience the excitement of winning at the WBC and now I want to repeat that feeling with Lotte," the 21-year-old Sasaki added.

It was exactly this time last year that Sasaki threw 17 straight perfect innings over two games to rise to international fame.

On April 10, 2022, Sasaki pitched a perfect game against the Orix Buffaloes. In that game, Sasaki tied the NPB record for total strikeouts in one game with 19. He also set an NPB record for consecutive strikeouts, having struck out 13 batters in a row.

One week later, Sasaki pitched eight perfect innings against the Fighters before being taken out by then-manager Tadahito Iguchi to protect the pitcher's health.

Tokyo Yakult Swallows star Munetaka Murakami sprints around the bases in the eighth inning on April 2. (ⒸSANKEI)

Murakami's Mad Dash

In Sunday's 3-2 win for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows over the Hiroshima Carp, last season's Triple Crown winner Munetaka Murakami hit a deep fly ball to right field in the eighth inning that he thought was his second homer of the season.

Hiroshima right fielder Takayoshi Noma jumped in an attempt to catch the ball but collided with the wall.

When the ball bounced to the ground, the dazed outfielder tried to pick it up but dropped it like a hot potato before finally getting a hold of it and throwing it somewhere in the general direction of the bullpen along the first base line.

Hiroshima Carp right fielder Takayoshi Noma attempts to catch a fly ball hit by Munetaka Murakami in the eighth inning. (ⒸSANKEI)

It was a scene right out of baseball's biggest bloopers.

While all this was happening, Murakami, who started in a home run trot, had to switch it into high gear for what essentially became an inside-the-park homer, although it was ruled as a double with an error.

Murakami was gassed by the time he reached the Yakult dugout but clearly amused.

"I thought it was gone so I started slowly," Murakami said of the homer that wasn't. 

Meanwhile, the Swallows swept their season-opening series with the Carp and looked very much like the team to beat in the Central League.

In Hiroshima's 3-2 loss, infielder Matt Davidson became the first non-Japanese Carp player in six years to connect for a home run for his first NPB hit.

The last non-Japanese Carp player to do it was Xavier Batista, who achieved it on June 3, 2017, versus Lotte at Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium.

Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks lefty Tsuyoshi Wada in action against the Orix Buffaloes in Osaka on April 5. (KYODO)

It's just a shoe!

Soaring Hawks

Another team that looks poised to have a strong season is the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks.

Like the Swallows, the Hawks swept their opening series against the Marines and then beat the defending Japan Series champion Orix Buffaloes 6-1 on Tuesday, April 4 to go 4-0 to open the season.

The following day, veteran pitcher Tsuyoshi Wada, 42, struck out three while giving up four hits over five scoreless innings to pick up the win as the Hawks improved to 5-0 with a 5-0 win over Orix.

"I'm very fortunate to be able to have such a long career," said Wada, who spent time in the major leagues with the Chicago Cubs. "We are off to a good start and the season just started, but I want to help the team win the Japan Series." 

Ryoya Kurihara (KYODO)

The biggest bonus for the Hawks so far this season is the play of infielder Ryoya Kurihara.

Kurihara, who last April had season-ending surgery, homered and drove in three runs in the win over Orix at Kyocera Dome Osaka. He already has three homers, 10 RBIs and a .381 batting average through the first five games of the season.

The Hawks won six Japan Series championships between 2014 and 2020 and are looking to get back to their dominant ways this season.

Hanshin Tigers infielder Yusuke Oyama hits an RBI double in the ninth inning against the Hiroshima Carp on April 4 at Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium. (ⒸSANKEI)

Tigers on a Roll

Fans of the Hanshin Tigers will be pleased with the team's impressive start to the 2023 season.

Yusuke Oyama drove in the winning run with a two-out double in the top of the ninth on Tuesday, April 4 as the Tigers edged the Carp 5-4 to start the season at 4-0. It's the first time in 15 years the Tigers have gone 4-0 to start the season.

The Tigers are looking strong under "new" manager Akinobu Okada.

Okada, who managed the team for five years starting in 2004, returned for this season after Akihiro Yano retired last season.

The 64-year-old Okada managed the Pacific League's Buffaloes from 2010 to 2012. His overall managerial record is 581-521-39.

As a player, the slugging second baseman was one of the prominent players in 1985 when the Tigers won their lone Japan Series championship.

Former MLB player Lewis Brinson is in his first season with the Yomiuri Giants. (ⒸSANKEI)

Giant Help

Have the Yomiuri Giants found a bona fide "Tsuketto?" Tsuketto is the word given to foreign players who come to Japan. It literally means helper.

For years the Giants have struggled to find a really good "tsuketto," while their crosstown rivals, the Swallows, have thrived with the likes of Jose Osuna and previously, Wladimir Balentien.

It's still early but outfielder Lewis Brinson is off to a fine start. The former major leaguer went 5-for-5 with six RBIs in Yomiuri's 9-0 trouncing of Yokohama on Tuesday, April 4.

Brinson has played in the past for the Milwaukee Brewers, Miami Marlins and San Francisco Giants.

Playing under the spotlight for Japan's most famous team is never easy so it will be interesting to see how Brinson handles the pressure.

The Giants missed the postseason last year and there will be considerable pressure on manager Tatsunori Hara and his players to reach the playoffs this year.

Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles closer Yuki Matsui celebrates getting his 200th career save on April 5 in Sendai. (ⒸSANKEI)

200 Saves for Matsui

Yuki Matsui of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles notched the 200th save of his career on Wednesday, April 5 when he retired the side in the ninth of his team's 1-0 win over the Saitama Seibu Lions.

Playing in his 10th season, the 27-year-old Matsui became the ninth player in NPB history to reach 200 saves.

It was a nice milestone for Matsui, who was a member of Japan's WBC team but only got into one game when he threw one scoreless inning of relief in the 13-4 win over South Korea in the opening round.


Author: Jim Armstrong

The author is a longtime journalist who has covered sports in Japan for over 25 years. You can find his articles on SportsLook.

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