Former New York Yankee Masahiro Tanaka will open the season as the second starting pitcher in the Rakuten Eagles rotation, manager Kazuhisa Ishii said Saturday.
Tanaka, who returned to the Pacific League club this year for the first time since his 2013 MVP season, will pitch the day after veteran righty Hideaki Wakui opens the season for the Eagles on March 26.
Ishii made the announcement after the Eagles' practice game against the Yakult Swallows at the Central League club's camp in Urasoe, Okinawa Prefecture. Tanaka started the game and allowed one run on two hits over three innings.
"I was able to take a step up compared to my first game," said Tanaka, who allowed a first-inning RBI single to young Swallows slugger Munetaka Murakami."
Ishii said the decision to go with Wakui was based on last year's results, when the right-hander had a renaissance season after he was purchased over the winter from the PL-rival Lotte Marines.
"He threw the innings for us, earned wins and was the biggest contributor from the mound, so I want to leave it up to him to get the ball rolling for us," Ishii said.
Wakui, who shared the PL wins lead last season, will be making his 10th opening day start and his first since he opened 2018 for the Marines. He allowed no hits or runs over two innings on Friday in his spring debut.
Ishii, the club's general manager, is making his managerial debut this year and Wakui said his goal is to give the skipper an opening day souvenir.
"I'm just going to pitch as I usually do," Wakui said in a statement released by the team. "Since it will be manager Ishii's first game, I want to do my best to be able to hand him the winning ball."
Even if Tanaka is No. 2 out of the chute in March, the right-hander has been the biggest topic of conversation since he announced in January that he would return to pitch in Japan this season.
To meet the demand for all things Tanaka, the Eagles have created a special category in their fan club dedicated to the pitcher, and on Thursday the 10 VIP memberships on offer for 1.8 million yen ($17,000) sold out in 14 minutes.