The Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s Blue Impulse aerobatic team flies over Es Con Field Hokkaido, the Nippon Ham Fighters’ new home in Kitahiroshima in Hokkaido, northern Japan, on March 30, 2023, ahead of Nippon Professional Baseball’s season-opening game against the Tohoku Rakuten Eagles. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)
By Matthew Tallarini
World Baseball Network
Former New York Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka pitched an absolute gem against the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters last night in the first regular season game at Es Con Field in Hokkaido, Japan, helping the Rakuten Golden Eagles earn their first win of the season by the score of 3-1.
Tanaka retired the first 13 batters he faced with ease, facing 22 batters in 5.2 innings of work, allowing two hits, one earned run, and striking out five while walking two batters in his first start of the season. Tanaka earned 191 wins in professional baseball and his 113th win in Nippon Professional Baseball last night.
The Rakuten Golden Eagles got on the board first in the top of the fifth when Yukiya Itoh drove a solo home run for the first home run at ES Con Field for the first run of the game.
In his first year playing in Nippon Professional Baseball, Maikel Franco had a stellar debut last night, recording the first hit at ES Con Field with his lead off double in the top of the fourth inning and hitting a two-run home run in the top of the sixth inning scoring Hiroto Kofukada to capture a 3-0 lead for the Golden Eagles.
The Nippon-Ham Fighters got their lone run of the game in the bottom of the sixth inning as Yuki Nomura drove a sacrifice fly to center field scoring Gou Matsumoto.
Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters starting pitcher Tayakuki Kato went seven innings allowing eight hits, three earned runs, no walks and striking out three during his season debut.
The Rakuten Golden Eagles pitching staff in their stellar performance combined with allowing three hits, walking two batters, one earned run and striking out 10 batters in the 3-1 win.
A total of 31,092 fans were in attendance during opening day at ES Con Field in Hokkaido for the first regular season game in the new state-of-the-art facility. The new stadium’s playing surface is natural turf and the building has a retractable roof.
Hideki Kuriyama, Japan’s 2023 World Baseball Classic Champion manager, threw out the first pitch at ES Con Field and managed the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters for ten seasons from 2012-2021.
The confines of ES Con Field could potentially host major events down the line outside of Nippon Professional Baseball such as a World Baseball Classic, Major League Baseball Opening Day games, or Major League Baseball Japan Series events, though none of those have yet been planned.
Rakuten and Hokkaido will meet again on Saturday at 12 a.m. EDT/ 1 p.m. JST.