- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 12, 2011

CHIBA, JAPAN (AP) - Backdropped by the deadly earthquake and tsunami and worsening radiation leak, the Japan Pro Baseball season opened Tuesday to relief, empathy and cheers as the Rakuten Eagles beat the defending champion Chiba Lotte Marines 6-4.

The Eagles’ home of Sendai has been one of the hardest hit by last month’s earthquake and tsunami, and they’re unable to use their own stadium until April 29.

An earthquake in Chiba early Tuesday and another felt in the stadium during the game didn’t deter the 22,525 hardy fans who gathered at QVC Marine Field for the Pacific League opener.

Local TV showed people in shelters watching the game, before which there was a moment of silence, and each fan in the Chiba cheering section held up signs of support for the disaster areas which said, “Stay Strong Japan.”

“Despite the difficult conditions, we are able to open the season because everybody helped us to do it,” said Rakuten infielder Kazuo Matsui, a former major leaguer in the United States. “I want to carry this feeling of appreciation for the whole year by playing baseball.

“During training camp, I went to a shelter and I saw people there with energy in their faces. I went there expecting to cheer them up, but instead they cheered me up. That’s why I want to play hard.”

Rakuten pitcher Darrell Rasner, a former member of the Washington Nationals and New York Yankees, thought the fans in Japan were glad to see the season start.

“It is a sense of normalcy for them,” he said. “It’s something that’s ingrained in them and, you know, I think this is going to be a healing process. This is going to be a great thing for them. Just for them to have something to cheer about, something to be happy about. I am and my teammates are really excited to be a part of this.”

Rakuten manager Senichi Hoshino has already said he wants to win the championship this season for the people of Sendai and Miyagi Prefecture.

They made an encouraging start.

Motohiro Shima hit a tiebreaking three-run homer in the seventh inning for the Eagles. Hisashi Iwakuma (1-0) gave up three runs, one unearned, in 8 1-3 innings. He struck out four and walked two.

Kazuya Fukuura brought the Marines close with a three-run shot of his own in the bottom of the ninth but the rally stopped there after Iwakuma was replaced by Ryan Speier, who closed it out.

The Eagles and Marines were playing a preseason game in Akashi when the earthquake and tsunami struck on March 11. The Eagles have been moving from city to city for preseason games since, and gathering support.

Hisako Aoyama, a 47-year-old translator who lived in the Tokyo area but supported Rakuten, said, “I want to go to as many games as possible that the Eagles will play in the Tokyo area and I am wearing this (Rakuten colors) to show my support for the team and to cheer up people in the north.”

Also, in the Central League, Yokohama beat Chunichi 5-4.

Games are usually played at night, but the NPB was scheduling more in the daytime this season to accommodate powercuts.

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