Homecoming hero Ohtani helps Japan win 'heavy' baseball opener

Major league superstar Shohei Ohtani was given a hero's welcome but Japan had to overcome "heavy" resistance from China to win their World Baseball Classic opener on Thursday.

Ohtani was playing in Tokyo for the first time since joining the Los Angeles Angels five years ago and he did not disappoint an adoring crowd of over 40,000, leading Japan to an 8-1 win.

Making his first pitching start of the year, the 28-year-old struck out five Chinese batters and gave up only one hit before leaving the mound after four innings.

He also drove in two runs with a huge double in the fourth inning to edge Japan towards a win that was much harder work than the final score suggested.

"It became heavy going in the middle of the game but we managed to get it back on track towards the end and get the win," Ohtani said, after Japan had scored four runs in the eighth inning to finally see off China's challenge.

"It was really special for me," he added.

Ohtani has earned comparisons with the legendary Babe Ruth for playing as both a pitcher and a hitter -- something almost unheard of in baseball.

He is playing in the World Baseball Classic for the first time after missing the 2017 tournament due to an injury.

He was given a deafening round of applause when he took to the mound and struck out the first batter he faced.

He also proved he is just as dangerous with a bat when he thumped a double to spark wild celebrations among the crowd.

"Just a little more and it would have been a home run, so it would have been good if I could have stretched it out just a little further," he said.

- 'Like a video game' -

Excitement began building hours before the game began, with fans queuing up to buy replica jerseys emblazoned with the Japanese players' names.

Ami Miyashita, a 25-year-old office worker, told AFP that Ohtani was her favourite.

"He's really popular -- everyone looks up to him," she said.

"He's a great player who is making history. He's got a great personality and he's cute."

Ohtani's teammates were just as impressed by his performance.

American-born lead-off hitter Lars Nootbaar said Ohtani was "like a video game out there" and he had to "pinch myself every time I watch him play".

"It's nothing like I've ever seen before," he said.

"I don't take it for granted -- I don't think any of us take it for granted. He's a special talent."

Japan are looking to win the World Baseball Classic for a record third time and are expected to compete with defending champions the United States and the Dominican Republic for the title.

They will also face South Korea, Australia and the Czech Republic in Pool B, with all games being played in Tokyo.

In the day's earlier game, Australia stunned the Koreans 8-7 to put themselves into strong contention for a place in the quarterfinals.

In Pool A, taking place in Taiwan, the Netherlands beat Panama 3-1, while Italy defeated Italy 6-3.