Godzilla Matsui is retiring. Great ball player, memorable Yankee.
He’ll be remembered with fondness around these parts.
[Painting by Nathan Abels]
Congratulations to Hideki Matsui on his 500th career professional home run.
Ichiro combined for well over 3000 hits in both leagues. And now Matsui has done the same with 500 homers.
It seems clear now that Ichiro, because his batting average, speed and defense did not diminish when he came over to America will be the more revered player by historians and fans in both countries. Though for a large part of their careers, the opposite was true.
[Photo from the Merced Sun Star]
Hideki Matsui was my meal ticket. This may smack of metaphor, but it’s almost literally true: every time Matsui homered, the curry shop/Matsui Shrine nearby my office handed me a coupon good for a $2 discount on a future meal. He helped put hundreds of dollars in my pockets over the years – in July 2007 I cleared over $20 bucks just by scheduling my curry fix to coincide exclusively with Godzilla’s crazy dinger binge. Other periods were not so lucrative.
His lengthy injury bouts took a toll on my bank account (pack a lunch? never!) but even a few months on the DL had not prepared me to contemplate a Matsui-less (ergo curry-for-more) future. Based on the resurgent 2009 campaign topped off with the two pillars of Yankee immortality, the World Series Championship and MVP, and the lack of superior options, I assumed Hideki Matsui would collect his ring in pinstripes. And another $50 bucks or so would be in play for me in 2010.
Brian Cashman assumed no such thing. Matsui was either not in his plans for 2010 or he was such a low priority that the Angels could snap him up with some lip service about the outfield and a reasonable 1 year contract. But whereas Matsui’s water logged knees may have been deemed too risky, Nick Johnson’s taffy tendons and balsa wood bones apparently pass muster. Matsui must have some grim future knee-cap disintegration scheduled to finish second to Nick “the wrist” Johnson in a reliability ranking.
All of this is to say I will miss Matsui. He was a terrific Yankee and, probably because he lacked a readily accessible English-speaking public persona, I created a very favorable one for him. I’ll miss his unorthodox bail-out hitting approach that seemed to preclude anything but a foul ball to the first base side and abandoned the outside corner as scorched earth, but remarkably produced a heckuva lot more variety than that. And by opening up his front side so early, he got a good look at left-handed release points and smushed them accordingly.
His booming extra base hits in Game 6 of the latest World Series were fantastic representations of his pull-power skill, but it was the opposite field single that was the key hit of the game for me . That 2 out, 2 strike, “getting the job done” liner dulled the razor edge of the game to something less dangerous. While in the stands for an interleague game versus the Cubs in 2005, I watched him size up the loogy summoned to preserve a slim Chicago lead and I knew Matsui was taking him deep.
And yet after 7 years as a Yankee, my lasting visual memory of him is going to be from his very first year here. In Game 7 of the ALCS, Matsui bested a tiring Pedro Martinez during the Yankees epic 8th inning comeback. While I can still picture his ringing double, the indelible image from that inning is not his sweet swing. It’s his celebratory jump and spin after scoring the tying run. Millions of eyes found the spot where Posada’s bloop was going to land and then swung in unison toward home plate to see Matsui tie the game. We all jumped up together.
Go Go Curry plans to follow Matsui to Anaheim with a new branch (the Manhattan location will stay open, phew, but will they continue to celebrate his Angel homers here in New York? It’s a little unseemly, no?) So will some fans, advertisers and some ticket sales to be sure. Even still, the Yankees coffers figure to be full. But what of their stature in Japan? Matsui grew up dreaming of being a Yankee - an advantage in the initial courtship. Future generations of Japanese stars may dream of Boston and Seattle before the Bronx – especially if the emerging consesus of Matsui’s departure harbors the specter of Yankee disrespect. This is only temporary and in the evolution of Japanese player movement, possibly meaningless, but there’s no need to hasten the Yankees decline in prestige by treating a national hero shabbily. I hope they treated him well right to the end and he gets the send-off he deserves.
The Yankees look to rebound from a disappointing Opening Day tonight against the Orioles and veteran Japanese right-hander Koji Uehara. Uehara is making his major league debut tonight, but he already has some history with the Yankees’ two Asian players. When Uehara joined the Yomiuri Giants as a 24-year-old rookie in 1999, Hideki Matsui was already established as the Giants hitting star. Matsui is just six months older than Uehara, and the two were teammates for four seasons and remain friends. Their time together climaxed in 2002, when Matsui won his third Central League MVP award, Uehara won his second Sawamura Award, and the Giants won their twentieth Japan Series championship. Matsui joined the Yankees the next year, and the Giants haven’t won a championship since.
In 2004, Uehara pitched for the Japanese Olympic team in Athens. When Japan faced Chinese Taipei, the starting pitchers were Uehara and Chien-Ming Wang, then a Yankee prospect who had just made his Triple-A debut. Uehara and Wang matched each other into the seventh. Uehara gave up a three-run home run to the Dodgers’ Chin-Feng Chen in the third. Wang blew the lead by allowing Japan to tie the game in the sixth. Ultimately, the game was decided by the bullpens as Japan won 4-3 with a run off the Rockies’ Tsao Chin-Hui in the bottom of the ninth. Current Dodger Hiroki Kuroda got the win.
Uehara also pitched for Japan in the 2006 World Baseball Classic and was the starting pitcher in Japan’s game against the USA. Derek Jeter went 1-for-3 in that game. Alex Rodriguez went 2-for-5. Johnny Damon struck out in a pinch-hit at-bat, I assume after Uehara came out of the game.
So, Uehara isn’t a complete unknown to the Yankees, at least not to Jeter and Matsui. The scouting report on the 34-year-old righty is that he’s a finesse pitcher with outstanding control. His fastball tops out in the low 90s, but he compliments it with a cutter, slider, splitter, and forkball. In his ten seasons with the Giants, he walked an incredibly low 1.20 men per nine innings and had an equally impressive 6.68 K/BB ratio. He has, however, suffered from some leg injuries and spent 2007 as the Giants’ closer in part to stay healthy. Last year, he made just 12 starts against 14 relief appearances and posted a 3.81 ERA in just 89 2/3 innings, though his peripherals remained outstanding.
The most famous walk Uehara issued came in his rookie season of 1999. Matsui and Venezuelan slugger Roberto Petagine were neck-and-neck in the Central League’s home-run race that year. With Matsui a home run behind the gaijin late in the season, Uehara was ordered by to intentionally walk Petagine in a game against Petagine’s Yakult Swallows. The Swallows had been walking Matsui all game, but Uehara wanted to pitch to Petagine and broke down in tears upon carrying out his orders. It was all for naught, as Petagine out-lasted Matsui, 44 homers to 42. In 2003, Petagine joined the Giants as Matsui’s replacement.
Getting back to tonight, while Uehara brings some interesting history to the mound, my eyes will be on Chein-Ming Wang, who is making his first regular season start since breaking his foot while running the bases in Houston on June 15 of last year. Wang had an inconsistent spring, posting a 4.15 ERA, a 1.34 WHIP, and most alarmingly, allowing three home runs (he allowed four in 15 starts last year). In his last start of the spring, in the first game ever played in the new Yankee Stadium, he gave up four runs in five innings and didn’t get a ground-ball out until the third inning. Wang’s foot is not my concern. What concerns me is the rust on his arm and his mechanics, as well as the fact that, when he hit the DL last year, his numbers revealed career-highs in ERA (4.07), walk-rate (3.3 BB/9), and WHIP (1.32). None of those figures is alarming, they were combined with a career-high strikeout rate (5.1 K/9), and Wang is no longer being relied on to be the Yankees’ ace, but after an eight-month layoff from mid-June to mid-February, he has something to prove this month.
The Yankee line-up is the same as Monday’s. The Orioles have moved Luke Scott to DH and replaced him in left field with Felix Pie, putting Ty Wigginton on the bench.
In other news, Dan Giese was claimed off waivers by the A’s.
The Yankees tend to treat the waiver wire as an afterthought, but I’d like to see them take an aggressive approach and make a play for Josh Bard, newly released this week by the Red Sox. Perhaps Bard would take a minor league deal, with the stipulation that he has to be on the major league roster by a certain date. Why am I singing the praises of Bard, he of the .270 on-base percentage and .279 slugging percentage in 2008? There are several reasons. Over a much larger sample size of games in 2006 and ’07, Bard was a very good offensive catcher. Anyone who can slug .537 while playing half of his games at Petco Park, as Bard did in 2008, has some measure of offensive talent. Bard is also a switch-hitter, giving the Yankees some flexibility in case Jorge Posada hits the disabled list for the second straight season. Additionally, Bard is a relatively young 30, having never caught more than 108 games in a single season dating back to 2002.
Bard was hitting over .400 for the Red Sox this spring, but fell victim to the Tim Wakefield hex. On a team where Jason Varitek, a highly skilled defensive catcher, has inexplicably never adjusted to the nuisance of the knuckler, the Red Sox’ backup catcher must be able to catch Wakefield every fifth day. (The job goes to rookie George Kottaras.) Bard cannot handle the knuckleball with any more dexterity than Varitek, but that’s not a problem for a Yankee franchise that hasn’t had a knuckleballer since Joe Niekro in 1987. (I’m not including Wade Boggs’ one-game cameo in 1997.) At the very least, Bard would represent an upgrade over no-hit wonder Kevin Cash, currently slated to do most of the catching at Scranton-Wilkes Barre . . .
While we’re on the subject of the knuckleball, the Yankees have had very little connection to the pitch during the expansion era. According to research, they have had only three fulltime knuckleballers over the last 50 years. Not surprisingly, two of them were the Niekro brothers, whose Yankee days stretched from 1984 to 1987. The third was a journeyman right-hander named Bob Tiefenauer, who appeared in ten games for the Yankees in 1965.
At least five other Yankee pitchers have thrown the knuckleball with some regularity over the past five decades. They are Doyle Alexander (1976, 1982-83) and Luis Tiant (1979-80), who mixed occasional knucklers into their wide assortments of pitches. (Perhaps Alexander should have used the knuckler more often during his second Yankee stint.) From the 1960s, we find relievers Bud Daley, Ryne Duren and Pedro Ramos as intermittent practitioners of the knuckleball.
The Yankees’ announcement that Hideki Matsui will not play the outfield until at least June is one of the least surprising developments I’ve heard this spring. With five fulltime outfielders (Damon, Gardner, Cabrera, Nady, and Swisher) expected to be on the Opening Day roster, the Yankees really have no need to play Matsui—the worst defender of the bunch—in the outfield over the first two months. If the Yankees want to work Posada into the DH mix, they can always use him against left-handers, sitting Matsui down and making him available for late-inning pinch-hit chores.
The more pertinent news has to do with the way that Matsui looks at the plate this spring. Through Wednesday’s action, Matsui had compiled a .588 slugging percentage in his DH-only role. After watching “Godzilla” play on Tuesday night against the Pirates, I’m ready to proclaim him the early favorite for AL Comeback Player of the Year honors. The game marked Matsui’s fourth consecutive start at DH, an indication that his right knee is nearly ready for the start of the season. In his first at-bat, Matsui turned on an inside fastball, launching a tower-scraping drive high over the right field wall at Steinbrenner Field. It was the kind of swing missing most of last season, as Matsui struggled on balky knees, one of which was recovering from surgery while the other was anticipating a similar procedure. While much of Yankee camp has centered on the abilities of new third baseman Cody Ransom, Matsui’s early season role has been underplayed. With Alex Rodriguez on the DL, Matsui will serve as the Yankees’ cleanup hitter, making him resident protection for Mark Teixeira. A good start for Godzilla will help soften the blow of losing A-Rod for any length of time, whether it’s four, five, or six weeks.
Bruce Markusen can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.
For the second time in as many series, the Yankees open a three-game set with a significant roster change. On Friday, they promoted Brett Gardner and Cody Ransom at the expense of Melky Cabrera and Richie Sexson. Today, they’ve activated Hideki Matsui from the disabled list and optioned Justin Christian back to triple-A.
Matsui has been on the shelf since late June due to inflammation in his left knee, but was one of the Yankees best hitters over the first three months of the season, going .323/.404/.458 and failing to reach base in just eight of his 69 games before succumbing to his injury. Matsui has slowly and steadily rehabilitated his knee since then, concluding his work over the weekend by playing in three rehab games with high-A Tampa in which he went 2 for 8 with a solo homer and two walks.
With Matsui back in the fold, two big questions need to be answered. The first is, obviously, “will he hit.” The second is, “if he hits, who sits?”
There’s no question that Matsui will DH and DH only, that’s been stated explicitly by the team, but with Gardner having just been installed in center field and having picked up five hits (including a double, a triple, and a game winner) in the final two games against the Royals, the big question is whose at-bats will Matsui might be taking.
Tonight the answer is Gardner, as Johnny Damon starts in center flanked by Xavier Nady and Bobby Abreu with Jason Giambi at first. To his credit, Joe Girardi has put his best offense on the field (including Ivan Rodriguez behind the plate) against A.J. Burnett, turf be damned. Still, one suspects that if that lineup was intended to be permanent, Gardner, who’s being groomed to start, would have been sent down in stead of Christian, who has emerged as a viable bench player. Instead, Gardner’s continued presence suggests an intended rotation that will see Girardi continue to rest his stars, be it by giving Damon or Matsui days off, or giving Nady some work at first base in place of Giambi.
No one really knows what to expect from Matsui any more than they know what to expect from Gardner 2.0. If Matsui picks up where he left off and Gardner continues to hit .400 with runners in scoring position, resting Damon and Giambi won’t hurt. If Matsui struggles and Gardner’s weekend proves to be a fluke, resting Damon and Giambi could undermine what little fight this team seems to have left in it.
Still, replacing Cabrera and Christian with Matsui and Gardner sure feels like a hefty upgrade, even if the offense’s biggest problems remain the catchers, Robinson Cano, and Jason Giambi’s poor performance with runners in scoring position (which has allowed teams to pitch around Alex Rodriguez in such situations).
The Yanks will need all the pop they can get in Toronto as they have to face not only Burnett tonight, but Roy Halladay on Thursday. The last series between these two teams was also played in Toronto with Burnett and Halladay pitching the bookend games. The Jays won both of those games, while the Yankees pounded Jesse Litsch in the middle match. On the season, the Jays, who are just two games behind the Yankees in the standings, have won four of the nine games between the two teams, with either Halladay or Burnett getting the win in all four victories. The Yankees have won just one game started by either of the Jays’ top two starters all year, that coming on Opening Night, when Chien-Ming Wang out-dueled Halladay, 3-2.
The Jays are a better team than they seem. Since Cito Gaston returned to the site of his past glories by replacing John Gibbons as manager at the end of a miserable June for the Jays, Toronto has won at a .580 clip. Had they done that over the rest of the season, they’d be leading the Red Sox in the Wild Card race (only one team in the NL has a winning percentage higher than .580). Over the same stretch, the Yankees have played .520 ball, which is actually worse than their overall winning percentage of .532.
Halladay and Burnett have obviously been key to that run under Gaston (Burnett is 9-2 under Gaston, Halladay has a 2.24 ERA since Cito’s return), as has the Jays’ dominant bullpen (a MLB-best 3.02 ERA). As for the offense, Vernon Wells spent most of Gaston’s first 50 games back at the helm on the DL and has only recently returned. Scott Rolen hit .229/.338/.382 under Gaston before landing on the DL himself. Instead it’s been left fielder Adam Lind who has been sparking the lineup, hitting .329/.363/.587 since being recalled two days after Gaston’s return. Gaston’s other big lineup change was to bench David Eckstein in favor of starting first Marco Scutaro and, with Scutaro now needed in Rolen’s place at third base, John McDonald at shortstop. Neither player provides much offense, but Scutaro has out-hit Rolen under Gaston, and McDonald’s defense makes Halladay all the more dominant.
Every little bit helps, which brings us back to Matsui. The last time he returned from a long DL stay he went 4 for 4 on his first night back. Of course, that was in mid-September 2006, when the Yankees had a double-digit lead in the AL East. Things are a bit different this year.