This Godzilla is monstrous at the plate, across Japan

World Series

October 20, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

NEW YORK - When Hideki Matsui made his decision to leave the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants to play baseball in America, he worried his Japanese countrymen would lose love for him because of his selfishness. Ichiro Suzuki had already left the Japan League for the Seattle Mariners, signaling an exodus of the best position players in a baseball-obsessed nation. Now him.

"I hope people don't think I'm a traitor," Matsui said.

Well, now what will they think?

He was already the Yankees' RBIs, hits and batting average leader this postseason. But last night in the first inning of Game 2 of the 99th World Series, Matsui got the green light on a 3-0 count against Florida starter Mark Redman and parked it in the history books.

Interpretation of the homer is a matter of your point of view. There's the technical baseball stuff.

"I think if you got the green light on 3-0 you'd hit a home run, too," said Marlins manager Jack McKeon, placing blame on the way Redman fell behind.

"I think it's a good indication of a real good hitter who knows his ability. ... He knows what his strength is. He stayed within himself and didn't try and pull the ball," Yankees manager Joe Torre said.

"When Matsui gave me that lead to work with ... " said Yankees starter Andy Pettitte, who got the Game 2 win.

All these issues are good, but not as good as the indelible cultural mark Matsui made.

"This is big. Huge. Every newspaper in the country will have his picture on the front page," said Hiroshi Kand of Kyodo News, one of dozens of Japanese media at Yankee Stadium last night.

With the three-run shot over the center-field wall, Matsui became the first Japanese player to homer in a World Series.

Move over, Mickey Mantle. There's a new twist on Yankees postseason power. Yankees fans in the frigid ballpark certainly reveled in it, beckoning Matsui for a curtain call after pushing the Yankees to a 3-0 lead en route to the 6-1 rout of the Florida Marlins to even the Series.

Back home, the celebration was inconceivably louder.

"It [was] Monday already in Japan. It [was] 10 o'clock in the morning in Japan," Kand said, looking at his watch. "Everyone is watching TV at their office. Everyone will be going crazy."

Godzilla has his power stroke back.

Some people may be pleasantly surprised to see the left-handed Matsui serving as a crusher of long balls this October, but just because America has not seen Matsui pumping balls over the fence in his so-called rookie season doesn't mean this is foreign territory.

In the 2000 Japan Series, the Giants faced the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. It was a dream matchup: Yomiuri, managed by "Mr. Giants" Nagashima, and the Hawks, led by Japan's (and the world's) career home run king, Sadaharu Oh. Matsui, who led the Japan league with 42 homers in addition to driving in 108 runs and batting .316 in 2000, hit three home runs in that Japan Series.

Matsui is Godzilla in Japan because of his home run prowess, and while the power did not immediately translate to the major leagues, he was such a consummately professional hitter and fundamentally terrific defensive player and base runner, it hardly mattered. He has been a rock-solid asset to the Yankees.

"People will say he made a good decision. So did the Yankees," Kand said.

Oddly, Matsui's surge in the first inning did for the Yankees' offense what none of the Yankees coaches or Hall of Fame consultants could. Alfonso Soriano followed Matsui with a two-run homer in the fourth, giving the Yankees a 6-0 lead - their largest lead this postseason since the 8-1 win over Minnesota in Game 4 of the American League Division Series.

Since then, the Yankees have been hurt by slumping designated hitter Jason Giambi and leadoff hitter Soriano. Both of them look lost in space: Giambi swinging like he's trying to dislocate his spine and Soriano, clueless.

Team Yankee had been working overtime trying to coax some semblance of an offense out its most dynamic and high-priced stars and tinkering with the idea of more lineup changes. It worked, temporarily, for Giambi when Joe Torre dropped him from cleanup to No. 7 in Game 7 of the ALCS and Game 1 of the World Series. The move got two homers out of Giambi, who was batting third last night and finally drove a ball to the opposite field for a double.

Last night, all hands were on deck for Soriano, whose talent is dynamic but whose failures are equally eye-popping. Torre said he spoke with Soriano before the game, discussing his idea of dropping the 25-year-old Dominican to the No. 9 spot.

"You look at what he does. He's got poor pitch selection and by now, it looks like he thinks the only way out of this thing is to get two hits every time he takes a swing," said Yankee hitting coach Rick Down.

Even Reggie Jackson, the original Mr. October, made a point to speak with Soriano after a Game 1 in which he went 1-for-5 in Game 1 after batting .133 against the Red Sox, including four strikeouts in Game 7.

"I try to support him, say a few of the right things, keep the guy emotionally in there. If it was easy, we'd all be doing it. I'd still be playing," Jackson said.

Well, Jackson doesn't need to be playing for the Yankees. At least not last night. As a home-run hitter, Matsui was as big in Japan as Jackson was in the United States, maybe moreso. This World Series is crowded with Japanese media representatives filing stories on Matsui.

They said the headlines across Japan today will all be big.

Godzilla hits. Godzilla homers. Godzilla rules.

Schedule

Florida Marlins vs. New York Yankees(Best of seven; *-if necessary)

Series tied 1-1

Saturday:Florida, 3-2

Last night:New York, 6-1

Tomorrow:At Florida, 8:32 p.m.

Wednesday: Florida, 8:24 p.m.

Thursday: Florida, 8:24 p.m.

*Saturday: At N.Y., 7:55 p.m.

*Sunday:At N.Y., 8 p.m. TV: All games on chs. 45, 5

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