Friday, June 6, 2003

Homers few, but Matsui still a success

Line drives, RBI his new trademark

By Ryan Ernst
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Hideki Matsui made it to Yankees training camp in Tampa, Fla., in late February without incident, with a throng of Japanese reporters and cameramen in tow.

His home run stroke, however, never made it through customs.

The Japanese slugger, nicknamed Godzilla, has hit just four homers for the Yanks, including one Thursday as the Yankees beat the Reds 10-2 to conclude a three-game interleague series. Matsui's output is well off the pace of his 50-homer season a year ago for the Yomiuri Giants.

And although countrymen Ichiro Suzuki and Tsuyoshi Shinjo before him have put up offensive numbers in the major leagues consistent with their years in Japan, they are not power hitters. With so few Japanese position players in the majors, it's hard to construct a formula for the transition, and manager Joe Torre won't try.

"Right now he's in a little bit of a slump," Torre said of his .261-hitting left fielder. "He still whacks one, hits the ball hard during the course of a game, but he's not on a roll right now. I think a part of that is he's still getting used to the different pitchers."

Preparing for major-league pitching is tough to do in Japan. And Matsui said he didn't talk to Shinjo or Suzuki about the jump.

"My plan was to come here, to the majors, and experience what it's like," Matsui said through a translator. "And then adjust accordingly."

Matsui has shown patches of power, but overall the adjustment has been slow in coming. He homered against the Reds in his second at-bat of spring training. He then hit a grand slam in the Yankees' home opener. Things have definitely slowed, but the slugger still ranks fourth on the team with 36 RBI, including three Thursday. The line-drive hitter Matsui has become is far from the moon-shot slugger Japanese fans expected, but Torre insists he doesn't mind.

"I've never seen him be anything more than he is now," Torre said. "Even in spring training he was more of a line-drive type hitter. And I thought that was to the advantage of somebody who changed leagues, changed countries, and (can) be effective."

It seemed to work for Suzuki, the Mariners right fielder who hit .350 in 2001 en route to winning both the American League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards. The success created hysteria in Japan. But Matsui's openness with the media in the media capital of the world and his reputation as a power hitter have created an even bigger stir.

"I don't feel pressure," he said. "My approach is to do things to the best of my ability. And right now I want to get used to things ... and make adjustments as I go."


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