[NPB NOTEBOOK] Masahiro Tanaka is aiming for a stronger overall performance in 2022

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Former New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka is hoping for better results in his second year in Japan.

Tanaka went just 4-9 with a 3.01 ERA in 23 games for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles last season. He had an impressive 126 strikeouts in 155⅔ innings.

Ks aside, those were hardly the numbers 33-year-old Tanaka expected in his first year back in Japan after seven successful seasons with the Bronx Bombers.

From his first game in Japan, it was obvious that Japanese batters had caught up with Tanaka’s fastball and he wasn’t going to overwhelm hitters with the high heat he used to.

Rakuten finished third in the Pacific League standings last season and was hoping for more from Tanaka, who led the team to the 2013 Japan Series Championship with a spectacular 24-0 record and a 1.27 ERA.

Tanaka completed his preseason preparations on Monday, March 21 in an exhibition game at the Tokyo Dome against the Yomiuri Giants, giving up two runs in five hits over six innings.

“It wasn’t a good result, but I did everything I could in terms of preparation,” Tanaka told reporters after the game against the Giants. “I had the opportunity to check my mechanics. Overall, my control wasn’t what I wanted it to be, so I’ll work on that.”

The Eagles open the regular season at home to the Chiba Lotte Marines on Friday. Tanaka is scheduled to play the team’s fourth game of the season against defending Pacific League champions Orix Buffaloes on March 29 in Osaka.

Sho time?

One of the exciting questions of the 2022 season: How does Sho Nakata fit into the plans of the Yomiuri Giants?

Last August, Nakata was suspended by the Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters for an act of violence against a teammate.

The Fighters said Nakata behaved aggressively prior to an August 4 exhibition game. He was immediately ordered to leave the stadium and stay at home while the team opened an investigation. He later apologized to his teammates and fans.

In a controversial move, the image-conscious Giants then acquired Nakata in late August.

After discussions with Yomiuri manager Tatsunori Hara, the team management decided that it would be a good idea to “save” the player.

On the one hand, it’s easy to see why the Giants would be interested. Nakata led the Pacific League in RBIs in 2020 and the previous two seasons.

But signing a player accused of bullying hardly seems like a good idea at a time when companies around the world are doing their best to ensure everyone has a safe job.

After joining the Giants in the 2021 season, Nakata played in 34 games and hit just three homers while recording seven RBIs.

What’s worse, the Giants slacked off in the second half of the season and finished third in Central League standings, 11 games behind Tokyo Yakult Swallows, who won the Japan Series. Whether that was due to the Nakata acquisition is debatable, but it was hardly the desired effect.

With hitting infielder Kazuma Okamoto (39 homers in 2021), it’s not like the Giants are desperate for that type of player.

Still, 32-year-old Nakata had a good preseason. In 14 games, he had 13 hits, three homers and eight RBIs. It’s clear the Giants want to see what he can do for them this season.

Diamond Diplomacy

Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of Baseball’s Arrival in Japan, The Baseball Blog Diamond Diplomacy launches a year-long social media campaign called #150Stories.

Each story will explore the theme of bridging the United States and Japan through baseball.

The first part is appropriately the story of Civil War veteran Horace Wilson, who introduced baseball to Japanese students in 1872.

As history shows, this was a significant step in diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States.

There is also a story about the very first baseball game between the US and Japan in 1886 when the First Higher School of Tokyo (Ichiko) won 29-4 against Yokohama Country Club Nine.

Follow the Diamond Diplomacy 150th Anniversary stories on their Twitter feed.

Start on opening day

Predicting who the opening day pitcher will be for each team has always been something of a hobby for baseball fans. A lot of attention is focused on who gets that all-important first start to kick off a new season, and it appears it matters even more in Japan than it does in Major League Baseball.

For some teams, the choice is pretty obvious. For example, it’s hard to imagine that the Orix Buffaloes wouldn’t pass the ball to Yoshinobu Yamamoto. The 23-year-old right-hander was easily the best pitcher in Japanese baseball last season with an 18-5 record, an outstanding 1.39 ERA and 206 strikeouts.

For the Yomiuri Giants, the task likely goes to Tomoyuki Sugano, who is coming off a disappointing season that left him injured and winning 6-7 in 19 games.

Sugano is a long way from the pitcher who went 17-5 in 2017, but who else do the Giants have?

The Hanshin Tigers, meanwhile, were ready to send 13-game winner Koyo Aoyagi to the mound but were able to settle for Osaka-born Shintaro Fujinami instead.

Aoyagi tested positive for COVID-19 and went into isolation, according to a club announcement on March 18.

Fujinami is looking to recover from a season where he only went 3-3.

Who gets the start for your favorite team?

Welcome back Bryant

Ralph Bryant, a former Kintetsu Buffaloes slugger, has been named manager of the Shibetsu Samurai Blades of the Hokkaido Frontier League, an independent baseball club.

Bryant, 60, won the Pacific League home run title three times during his playing days with the Buffaloes from 1988 to 1995, when he was one of the NPB’s most popular foreign players.

Former Chunichi Dragons and Yokohama BayStars player Tony Blanco previously served as the team’s player-coach.

Bryant played a total of eight seasons in NPB, hitting 259 homers with 641 RBIs.

“I would like to express my gratitude to the owner, team officials and everyone involved in my appointment as manager,” Bryant said in a statement released by the team. “I hope to use my experience to develop players who show a lot of energy and endurance.”

Follow baseball coverage throughout the season here.

Author: Jim Armstrong

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