Back home, Matsui calms Yankees, 12-1

His three RBIs, Posada's two 3-run HRs give N.Y. split with Rays in Japan

Baseball

April 01, 2004|By Dom Amore | Dom Amore,THE HARTFORD COURANT

TOKYO - The on-deck circle was the perfect vantage point for Alex Rodriguez, one headliner, to size up another.

"He just seems so calm," Rodriguez, the New York Yankees' third baseman, said of Hideki Matsui. "I'm sure Matsui has a lot of emotions. To have all those people expecting you to hit a home run, it's pretty amazing that he can do that."

Even Rodriguez can't imagine what it was like for Matsui - coming home to Japan, playing for the Yankees, hearing the packed stadium not only chant his name, but also demand a home run. And twice, he delivered.

"I don't think you could make that analogy," Rodriguez said. "He's got a whole country following him. He's a national hero. This was a once-in a lifetime moment. Who knows if the Yankees will ever come back here with Matsui hitting in the middle of their lineup?"

Matsui hit a home run in his first at-bat of the trip Sunday in an exhibition game against his former team. The center of attention from start to finish, Matsui walked off an even bigger hero yesterday after hitting a home run in the Yankees' 12-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

"And if they don't mind, we're going to take him home with us," manager Joe Torre said.

Jorge Posada hit three-run homers from both sides of the plate and Tony Clark also homered in support of Kevin Brown. But Matsui, 3-for-9 in the two games against the Devil Rays, was named the Opening Series Most Valuable Player and received a samurai helmet called a Kabuto.

"That's all right," Posada said. "What he did is not easy to do."

Matsui's first season with the Yankees was an unqualified success. He hit .287 with 16 homers and 106 RBIs, and hit .281 with two homers and 11 RBIs in 17 postseason games, including several big hits. He did it with the intense scrutiny of the Japanese media, with no knowledge of the pitchers he was facing in a culture that was completely new.

"The one thing we all take for granted is communication," said Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. "Just being here in Japan for six days, not knowing the language, having to have someone with you to interpret for you, you get an appreciation for what he goes through every day."

Now, Matsui, 29, has a year under his belt and a catalog of the pitchers he'll be facing.

"I have played a season in the major leagues now and I know what to expect," Matsui said.

Said Rodriguez: "The jump could be pretty special. Especially for him, because he's such a smart player."

"I see a different kind of confidence now," said Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi. "Last year you saw a lot where he was just trying to put the ball in play. Now, he's showing you how he hit 50 home runs. You see him cutting it loose a little more."

After losing the season opener, 8-3, on Tuesday, the Yankees needed a victory to avoid five days of pounding from owner George Steinbrenner's gavel. After Brown gave up a run in the first, Matsui tied it with an RBI single in the third, and Clark hit a two-run homer in the fourth. Matsui's two-run shot in the fifth made it 5-1. Posada hit one from the right side in the fifth, and from the left in the seventh to make it 11-1.

Brown allowed six hits and walked none in seven innings, using only 77 pitches to win his Yankees debut. Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera finished up.

The Yankees left Tokyo after the game and were expected to be in Tampa, Fla., at about 1 a.m. early today. They'll play two exhibition games this weekend at Legends Field, then resume the season against the Devil Rays in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Tuesday.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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