Even in playoffs, Matsui defying age
Slugger keeping Japan proud by minimizing effects of pain
NEW YORK -- Just when the cycle of Hideki Matsui's career could have been on a downswing, the former star of the Yomiuri Giants and current Yankees slugger is continuing to bang the ball.
Seven years after Matsui's final game overseas, the Japanese media is still attending his games in hordes. Every day, no matter what he accomplishes, Matsui still accommodates them with pregame and postgame interview sessions. On a night at the new Yankee Stadium when his two-run sixth-inning homer broke open a tight game -- helping turn Game 1 of the American League Division Series into a 7-2 laugher over the Twins -- he also spent a half-hour talking through an interpreter with a smattering of U.S.-based reporters."I'm honored to still have this much support from the fans so many years later," Matsui said after the Yanks took a 1-0 lead in the best-of-five series, which will continue here on Friday at 6:07 p.m. ET after Thursday's off-day. "It's amazing how consistent that support continues to be, both in Japan and in America."
Matsui is huge in Japan, where -- like Michael Jordan in the U.S. -- his visage once donned the sides of buildings and airplanes. He has never quite developed that kind of popularity here, but his exploits and the exploits of countryman Ichiro Suzuki are still big news in his homeland."Matsui has been huge for us all year," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi of Matsui, who posted 28 homers and 90 RBIs in 142 games this season after dipping to nine homers and 45 RBIs in 93 games last year, when an injured left knee kept him out. "Another home run off a left-hander -- his RBI production off a left-handers has been great. That's why we DH him all the time." Matsui's power splits against right-handed pitchers and left-handers are remarkably close -- he had 15 homers and 44 RBIs against righties, collecting 13 homers and 46 RBIs against lefties -- but he had 325 regular-season at-bats against right-handers compared to 131 against southpaws.
Godzilla comes alive
No matter. On Wednesday night, the Japanese media -- about 200 deep -- was straining to hear every word.What kind of pitch was Matsui looking for in that 2-1 delivery from left-handed reliever Francisco Liriano, who replaced starter Brian Duensing before Matsui came to bat? "I was just sitting on a fastball, and I was fortunate he threw me one that I could hit," Matsui said about his seventh playoff homer -- his fourth in the ALDS. The home run came immediately after Alex Rodriguez drove in his second run of the game with his second single. At that point, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire decided to pull Duensing in lieu of Liriano. "With Alex up, right away we told [Duensing] not to give him anything to hit there," Gardenhire said. "If we got him to chase, throw something in the dirt -- misfire there. We'd see.
"We had Matsui behind him, who I hate to face, too. But Duensing threw a pitch over the plate, and A-Rod hit it. He was just missing. The intention there was not to throw strikes. If we got behind on him, we'd put him on. We threw a strike, and there you have it."So I brought in another hard-throwing lefty to face Matsui. He just got behind right away and gave up a home run." Matsui, 34, can become a free agent at the end of the World Series. Although he wants to remain with the Yankees, Matsui has been relegated to serving as the designated hitter because of his knee problems. The team hasn't made a decision about his future and won't until this attempt at a 27th World Series title is over. "I'm worried about tomorrow and the next day more than the future," Girardi said. "But he'll be our DH." For his part, Matsui said the same thing. "I'm not worried about the future right now," Matsui said. "All I care about is helping my club to win the World Series." When Matsui arrived as a much-ballyhooed free agent from Japan, he had just won the Japan Series as a member of the Giants, who are based in Tokyo and considered the Yankees of the Japan Leagues. The Yankees, who had just signed a working agreement with the Giants, made Matsui a focus in that free-agent market, and Matsui made it clear he wanted nothing more than the challenge of playing for the Bronx Bombers. In Matsui's first season, 2003, the Yankees went to the World Series, where they lost to the Marlins in six games. This year's team might have the best chance since then of winning it all. Matsui isn't ready to make any predictions. "Let's see how the postseason plays itself out," Matsui said. "We still have much work to do, and it's too early to determine whether this is a great team."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.