Commentary

Matsui hopes slump is about to end

His two-run homer at New York could be a sign he's ready to turn things around

Updated: July 21, 2010, 12:54 PM ET
By Mark Saxon | ESPNLosAngeles.com

NEW YORK -- Hideki Matsui admitted it felt good to get a long ovation before his second-inning at-bat Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, a crowd of 47,775 showering him with love. He hasn't been hearing much of that in Anaheim.

Before Tuesday's 10-2 Angels win, in which Matsui contributed a two-run home run, he admitted this season has been his most difficult since he crossed the Pacific seven years ago.

"Obviously, coming here to a different team, a different division and a different environment has been a challenge," Matsui said through an interpreter.

Nobody is pulling for Matsui like the Angels, whose entire precarious position right now can be traced to the November decision to let Vladimir Guerrero go. Tuesday night's shot on a Chan Ho Park changeup was just one tenuous step back for Matsui, the designated hitter who replaced Guerrero.

[+] EnlargeHideki Matsui
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesHideki Matsui watches as his two-run homer against the Yankees sails off into the night sky.

When he still played for the Yankees, Matsui's spot tended to be the moment in the lineup when the pitcher exhaled. He hasn't seen as many ripe pitches with the Angels, who seem to match the Yankees' offensive depth only when they're playing them. On Tuesday, Matsui hit a pitch that wasn't a fastball down the middle. The Angels were taking that as a good sign.

"To see Hideki hit an off-speed pitch was good to see," Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "He's been searching a little bit his last 50 at-bats or so, definitely not driving the ball as well as he has."

In 2003, when he left the Yomiuri Giants to join the New York Yankees, Matsui had to deal with plenty, from living abroad (in New York City, of all places) to a whole new set of pitchers and -- worse -- an entirely new style of pitching. This season, he has been dealing with different hurdles, and one of them might be impossible to beat: the ravages of aging.

A career .292 hitter coming into this year, Matsui, 36, entered Tuesday batting .249. In the past six weeks, his power had completely vanished. Matsui said there are days he feels good at the plate and days when "the results just aren't there."

"There are still another two and a half months, so I think there's still a lot of time," Matsui said. "Putting aside whether I'll get there or not, the opportunity is there."

Scioscia wonders at times why he sees one hitter in batting practice and in drills with hitting coach Mickey Hatcher and another hitter when the lights come on.

"Hopefully, he'll get a little spark and get productive again," Scioscia said.

It's looking more and more as if it will be a quiet final 10 days before the July 31 trade deadline, but that doesn't mean the Angels wouldn't welcome some new help. They'd love to see a productive Matsui. Maybe they could swing a three-for-zero deal and get a productive Mike Napoli and a healthy Maicer Izturis, too. All of those guys interrupted seasons of silence to help the Angels beat a team they tend to beat. Izturis, just activated from the disabled list, had two RBI hits, including a two-run home run. Napoli, one of baseball's streakiest hitters, is hot again. He mashed three hits, driving in four runs.

Kick in a contributing Scot Shields, who pitched a scoreless inning, and it might be enough to spark this team to a pennant race. The Texas Rangers won again Tuesday, so the Angels still sit five games out of first in the American League West, but it's a step -- for the team and for one struggling hitter.

Starting out

The Angels kept the identity of Tuesday's starting pitcher quiet. So quiet, in fact, the pitcher didn't know.

Sean O'Sullivan flew all the way from Fresno, where Triple-A Salt Lake was playing, to New York unaware of whether he or the man sitting next to him, Trevor Bell, would get the ball. Apparently, Angels pitching coach Mike Butcher left O'Sullivan a message Monday, but he never got it.

"I showed up and said, 'Hey, what am I doing?'" O'Sullivan said.

O'Sullivan's poise showed up after a rocky first inning in which the Yankees made him throw 26 pitches and scored twice. Between then and the end of the sixth, they'd get only one base runner, after a walk to Brett Gardner. O'Sullivan admits it took him a while to calm his nerves.

"As a kid growing up, the Yankees were the biggest team," O'Sullivan said. "To get to come into their house and pitch on their mound ... from what I hear, it's the loneliest place on earth."

By the numbers

It was a bad combination for the Yankees on Tuesday.

Not only has Napoli feasted on their pitching in the past, but he came into this series on a roll. Napoli's two-run single in the ninth inning gave him eight hits in his past 15 at-bats, with three home runs. His career 1.189 OPS against New York is the highest against the Yanks in the live ball era for players with at least 85 plate appearances, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Ted Williams had only a 1.103 OPS versus New York. Then again, his came over 1,351 plate appearances, 1,264 more than Napoli has had. Napoli has no explanation for it.

"Good for me, I guess," he said.

Did you see that?

Catchers have a lot more gear than other players, but when it comes to fielding the ball, most of it is of no use to them. Jeff Mathis absentmindedly scooped a ball out of the dirt with his mask in the seventh inning, and it nearly cost the Angels a run.

Plate umpire Bruce Dreckman awarded baserunner Jorge Posada second base because of Mathis' illegal use of his equipment. Juan Miranda followed with a single to right, but the slow-footed Posada couldn't score.

Quote of the day

"My parents hyped it up a little bit. That didn't help. They were talking about how it's the biggest game I've ever thrown, this and that. I was like, 'You guys are really not helping. You should just let me go out and pitch.'" -- O'Sullivan.

Looking ahead

Joel Pineiro (10-6, 3.95 ERA) hasn't lost a game since June 1. He's riding a winning streak of seven straight decisions going into Wednesday afternoon's game at Yankee Stadium. Over that stretch, Pineiro has a 2.51 ERA. He generally has been the Angels' second-best starting pitcher, with at least six innings pitched in 17 of 19 starts.

The Angels face Javier Vazquez (7-7, 4.45), who has never beaten them in six career starts.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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