The battle between Matsuis

The 2004 Subway Series has a new twist: the first meeting on U.S. soil between Hideki and Kaz Matsui.

Originally Published: June 25, 2004
By Bob Klapisch | Special to ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- With a combination of dread and weariness, the Yankees and Mets are about to collide six times in the next 10 days -- yet another installment of a Subway Series that both sides would love to see nuked out of existence.

Hideki Matsui
Hideki Matsui is second on the Yankees with 13 home runs this season.

While mouthing all the proper platitudes about serving the fans, the Yankees say there's little thrill in beating the Mets, which they've done 24 of 36 times since 1997. It's either win, or else feel George Steinbrenner's hot breath on their necks. The Mets are no more enthusiastic going to the Bronx this weekend, considering they're coming off two straight losses to the Reds and now have to face the major league's most prodigious home run hitters.

As Shane Spencer, a former Bomber now with the Mets, put it, "the Yankees have never had a lineup like this, ever. Just look at it. It's ridiculous."

Both sides are thankful that the Roger Clemens-Mike Piazza blood war is no longer relevant in New York. It's been replaced by a more international twist this year -- the two Matsuis, Hideki and Kaz, going against each other for the first time on U.S. soil. It might lack tabloid drama, but don't underestimate how a Matsui vs. Matsui showdown sells in Japan.

One Manhattan-based travel agency has lured hundreds of Japanese fans to New York this week, each paying between $3,000-$4,000 for the trip. Robert Tuchman, president and CEO of TSE Sports and Entertainment, told the New York Post the buzz created by the two Matsui's has been "huge."

"Usually, we only get that many for things like the Super Bowl or The Masters. Usually, baseball games are only 20 or 30 people," Tuchman said. "But because of the rivalry and the Japanese fan, we're seeing numbers that dwarf what we usually do."

For the moment, however, the rivalry between Hideki and Kaz is as unbalanced as the Mets-Yankees wars themselves. In fact, when Steinbrenner suggested there was an conspiracy behind the Yankees' having a tougher interleague schedule than the Red Sox last year, Bud Selig dropped the Boss a note reminding him the Yankees had the Mets all to themselves, going 6-0.

Kaz Matsui
Shortstop
New York Mets
Profile
2004 SEASON STATISTICS
AB R HR SB OBP AVG
281 41 5 10 .328 .253

So far, no one's complained about the expected sellouts in both ballparks. But if nothing else, the Subway Series will highlight the performance gap between the two Japanese players. While Hideki has become a solid fixture in the Yankees' lineup, Kaz has been beleaguered by errors and a below-average throwing arm.

Mets officials are understandably concerned. While no one expected Matsui to generate much power, or even hit much higher than his current .253 average, the fact that he's leading all major league shortstops with 15 errors has spurred talk of flip-flopping him and Jose Reyes next year.

GM Jim Duquette said, "it's really too early to even discuss that issue" but the Mets have already come to the conclusion that Reyes, with the superior arm, is indeed the better shortstop.

But that's not to say the Mets have lost faith in Matsui, or that they regret signing him. In fact, the Mets still say converting Reyes to second base in spring training was the right move, because it was the only way to lure Matsui from Japan. What the Mets say they miscalculated, however, was Matsui's transition to a grass infield.

Duquette pointed out, "most of Kaz's errors have come from waiting back on the ball, and that's a habit from playing all those years [in Japan] on turf. Once he gets used to playing on grass, I'm sure we're going to see an improvement."

In the meantime, though, Matsui found himself on the bench on Thursday, as the Mets lost, 6-2, to the Reds. Manager Art Howe was careful to say he was resting his shortstop in preparation for the Yankees' series, but Matsui had already played in 68 of the Mets' first 70 games. And considering he didn't skip a game during his last eight seasons in Japan, a stretch of 1,143 games, the Mets are wondering about his fatigue-level.

Even the Yankees have noticed a dropoff. Yanks GM Brian Cashman said, "we saw Kaz in Japan, we knew what he was capable of, and he's better than what he's showing now."

I think he's been great, this year and last year. Once Hideki got adjusted to playing here, he's been everything we ever expected from him.
Brian Cashman, Yankees GM, on Hideki Matsui

Maybe adrenaline will help. Matsui said through an interpreter, "you read and hear so much about Yankee Stadium, it's going to be exciting for me. I have no idea how loud the crowd will be, but I'm sure the atmosphere will be amazing for everyone."

Still, Kaz confesses to only a peripheral awareness of Hideki, insisting "there's not much in common between us because we play different positions and we play for different teams. But he's a very good hitter and I'm sure many fans will be interested to see us on the field together."

The Yankees' Matsui also appreciates the international flavor of this year's Subway Series. And even though he says there's no personal battle between him and Kaz, those who insist on creating one are bound to enjoy it.

"There's going to be people who root for Hideki Matsui, there's going to be people who root for Kaz Matsui," he told The Post. "There will be people who root for both of us. There will be Mets fans and Yankees fans. There's going to be so many different types of fans."

One non-issue, however, is Hideki Matsui's place in the Yankee offense. He's a patient hitter -- seventh in the AL last in percentage of pitches taken (62.6), while finishing second in percentage of swings that put a ball into play (55.5) -- who's finally turning into a long ball threat. At his current pace, Matsui will finish with 31 home runs and 100 RBI.

No wonder Joe Torre says, simply, "I think he's going to have a big year."

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.