Commentary

Angels need to watch use of Matsui

The veteran will do what the team needs, but playing the OF might not be best

Updated: April 11, 2010, 2:13 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Hideki Matsui never ends an interview. No matter how many reporters are near his locker or how many questions they ask, he stands there patiently, arms folded across his chest, giving a thoughtful answer to each one until the silence between questions lasts too long and it's clear everyone has the answers he needs.

He may not hate it, but there is no way he can actually enjoy this. No one would. But he does it, day in and day out, because he's a professional and that is his job.

He is, in other words, a man who can place others ahead of himself and his personal comfort.

Of much greater importance than the courtesy he shows the media horde from Japan that tracks his every move is whether he's doing the same thing with the Angels in saying that he's able to play the outfield on his chronically painful and arthritic knees.

His streak of 173 games without playing in the field ended Thursday when he started in left field, and from the looks of things, he'll be playing in the outfield on a semiregular basis this season, maybe even as soon as Sunday in the series finale against the Athletics.

[+] EnlargeHideki Matsui
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireHideki Matsui drives in the winning run in the ninth inning against the A's on Saturday night.

That's all great for the Angels' outfield depth -- particularly while Reggie Willits is in the minors rehabilitating a hamstring injury -- and Matsui's pride, but will this be a good thing for the Angels long term?

Matsui is off to a torrid start this season, hitting .417 (10-for-24) after going 3-for-5 with two RBIs Saturday night, including a dramatic walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth to give the Angels a 4-3 win and stop their four-game losing streak.

He's been so good, you wonder where the Angels would be without him even though he just arrived. In both of the Angels' wins this year, Matsui has gotten the go-ahead or winning RBI. The rest of the team has been leaving runners on base at an alarming pace: Saturday night the Halos left 11 more men on base, essentially costing Jered Weaver the decision after he went six strong innings and gave up only one run.

"Everybody knows what he can do in a clutch situation," Angels outfielder Torii Hunter said. "I've been on the other side of that so many years. I've seen this guy break my heart. I'm the one walking off the field all those times in Minnesota, because of that guy.

"We've been scuffling or whatever, but that guy right there has been hitting well. He's here; he's fitting in; he has arrived."

So why risk putting your hottest hitter in the outfield when it's clear every time he rubs his knees after running the bases that he is still, and probably always will be, in considerable pain?

Angels manager Mike Scioscia alternates between seeming hesitant to play Matsui in the outfield and defiant of any criticism at the decision to do so.

Scioscia said Friday night, "The primary role that Hideki has is to hit in the middle of our lineup and we're not going to fool with that. We need him there."

But by Saturday night, his tone was quite different: "We have a lot of guys who are swinging the bat well; you can't put bubble wrap on them. You have to play baseball."

Scioscia is not contradicting himself. It's just that the dynamic here is complicated -- not just by Willits' injury or the Angels' lack of depth in the outfield after trading away Gary Matthews Jr., but also by Matsui's pride and sense of responsibility.

He recognizes the Angels need him in the outfield right now and wants to do what the team needs. He also just likes playing in the outfield because he's a ballplayer and it's hard to fade into the back of the dugout and just come out every couple of innings to hit.

"It's both, as of right now," Matsui said when asked whether he was playing the outfield because he wanted to or because the Angels need him to.

"Really, it's simple. I just want to play every game and help the team. As a designated hitter you're really limited to what you can do. If I play the outfield, that allows for another option to the team to be more versatile.

"I do have the desire to try and enjoy every aspect of the game and make the most out of it. Obviously I do have my knee situation, so I can't say it's 100 percent, but I'd like to try and enjoy every aspect of the game."

The operative word here is "try." Matsui will always do that. It's his nature. But this just might be a time for someone else to come in and put an early end to this particular interview in the outfield. He's just too valuable in the middle of the order to keep answering those questions.

Scene and heard

Joe Saunders was trying to be modest, but the guy carries a 2 handicap in golf and routinely takes dinners off every guy on the team. No easy way to hide that. So when I asked who the best golfer on the team was, all he could do was smile and shrug.

"I'm not going to gloat, it's probably me," Saunders said, as he, third baseman Brandon Wood and Weaver watched the third round of the Masters in the Angels' clubhouse Saturday afternoon.

Saunders said he, Weaver and left-hander Scott Kazmir are the most avid golfers on the team. During the season they play at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach and the Del Mar golf course. "We play the most, but that's because we've got the most downtime," he joked.

Here's the weird part: Saunders pitches left-handed but plays golf right-handed. "I don't know why. It's the only thing I do right-handed."

By the numbers

The Angels were again named the best bargain in baseball in the annual Team Marketing Report fan cost index survey released this week.

The team dropped ticket prices by 5.6 percent this season to $18.93, well under the major league average of $26.74. The Angels' fan cost index -- two adult average-price tickets, two child average-price tickets, two small beers, four small soft drinks, four hot dogs, parking, two game programs and two baseball caps -- was just $131.80, fourth-lowest in the majors.

The Cubs and Red Sox have the highest average ticket prices at $52.56 and $52.32, respectively. The Yankees were third at $51.83.

Quote of the day

"I think today's win was very important. Obviously stopping the losing streak, but just with the way the game was flowing. Having the lead at first, then they came back. If we would've lost this game it would've left a sour taste in everyone's mouth. So it was important to win today's game." -- Matsui on his winning RBI single in the bottom of the ninth, which helped end the Angels' four-game losing streak.

Look ahead

Saunders wasn't especially sharp in his season debut, giving up five runs in five innings in a 5-3 loss to the Twins on Tuesday. The numbers favor a better outing Sunday. Saunders has never started any of his five professional seasons 0-2 and is 9-3 with a 3.99 ERA lifetime against the A's. He'll face A's left-hander Dallas Braden, who struck out 10 and gave up only one run but wasn't a factor in the decision in his first start against the Mariners last week.

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

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