Commentary

Matsui lets bat answer questions

The Angels' newest slugger has powerful debut

Updated: April 6, 2010, 10:13 AM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

ANAHEIM -- For now at least, Hideki Matsui is renting a place in Huntington Beach, not buying.

A smart decision for a guy on a one-year contract with an offseason home in Japan, but maybe not in a down real-estate market where Orange County McMansions can be had for an embarrassing fraction of their previously inflated list prices.

Hideki Matsui
AP Photo/Jae C. HongHideki Matsui knocked in two runs and hit a homer in his Angels debut.
"Well, basically, my salary has been slashed in half, so I don't think I can afford to buy," Matsui joked after his Angels debut Monday night in a 6-3 win over the Twins.

It was a playful joke, not a plea to the owner's box for a raise. Matsui is already on a de facto probation with Angels boss Arte Moreno after one of his foul balls broke the windshield of Moreno's new Mercedes-Benz during spring training.

But after Matsui's smashing debut Monday night -- he drove in the go-ahead run with a sharp single to right in the fifth inning, then tacked on an important insurance run with a solo home run to right field in the top of the eighth -- Matsui just might be the bargain the Angels hoped he would be.

From a marketing standpoint, that much was clear from the crowds of Japanese reporters who flocked to his introductory press conference and then to Arizona for spring training, every one beaming pictures and videos and stories of Matsui's adjustment from the Yankees to the Angels.

On the field, there were more questions. Would he be an upgrade over Vladimir Guerrero? Could he still play the outfield? If the Yankees were so easily able to say goodbye to last season's World Series MVP, just how bad were his chronically painful knees?

One game is too small of a sample size to say anything definitively, but first impressions do last a while: In baseball, the fastest way to a new team's heart is over the fence.

"I think anybody always wants to start the season on a good note," Matsui said through his interpreter. "So I'm happy about the way tonight went. Hopefully I can continue that."

In New York, he always seemed hidden behind a throng of Japanese reporters and more tabloid-friendly stars like Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. The guy who always drove a crushing stake through the Yankees' opponents with timely hitting, but rarely sizzled for the cameras or on the phone lines of sports talk radio.

Part of that is the language barrier. Though he speaks English, Matsui prefers to do interviews through an interpreter. "Anything official," he explained.

In New York, where there are as many operatic storylines floating around the Yankees' clubhouse on any given night as there are coffeehouses in Greenwich Village, it was easy, in a way, to simply show up, hit like crazy, entertain the Japanese media for a few minutes, slip out of the clubhouse quietly and call it a night.

"Yes, from an objective standpoint, it may have looked like I was flying under the radar [in New York]," Matsui said.

Here in Los Angeles, things already seem different. The throngs of Japanese media are still following him around -- the Angels credentialed 62 writers and photographers from Japan for Monday's opener -- but he is being thrust into the spotlight rather loudly.

Manager Mike Scioscia immediately penciled him in as the cleanup hitter, ahead of budding star Kendry Morales; fans held up "Matsui-land" signs in the right-field pavilion, and a group of 20 American reporters gathered around his locker after the game.

"I think with Hideki and his experience, and coming off the experience and the good year he had last year, he's a good fit in the middle of our lineup," Scioscia said, explaining the choice to hit the 35-year-old Matsui ahead of Morales.

"If Kendry continues to develop and grows into that force that we think he can be, obviously he can hit three or four in the middle of a championship-caliber lineup. But right now I think this is the right way to proceed.

"One thing Hideki does do, is he will get on base, he will work counts, he will take the walk if it's there, and I think that could be a good position for Kendry to hit in."

That's a lot to ask of a guy on a one-year contract at the tail end of his career, a player the Angels are obviously renting, not buying. But after one night at least, the prices in Matsui-land are on the rise.

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