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With each swing, Matsui becoming a bona fide hit

| Tuesday, July 1, 2003

NEW YORK -- Hideki Matsui still has plenty to learn. Proved it during the weekend, in fact.

Bounding out of the dugout to take a curtain call after a grand slam at Yankee Stadium, he got tangled up with hitting coach Rick Down.

"I almost slipped," Matsui said through his translator.

Suffice to say, it was one of the very few missteps he's made lately.

Billed as "Godzilla" when he left Japan and signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the New York Yankees in January, Matsui has shown he's much more than a one-dimensional slugger.

Exactly halfway through the season, Matsui tops the AL East-leading Yankees in hitting (.304) and ranks among the league leaders in RBI (61) and doubles (26). He got his 100th hit Sunday night, a home run against the New York Mets.

In a year in which they've been banged up and hurt by inconsistency, Matsui arguably has been the Yankees' MVP, especially recently.

Matsui batted .493 (33 for 67) to lead all major leaguers in hitting during interleague play. His surge started with three doubles and a homer at Cincinnati on June 5, and he wound up tied with Ichiro Suzuki for most hits during the month of AL vs. NL matchups and also tied for most RBI (22).

Filling in for the injured Bernie Williams, Matsui has excelled defensively in center field. He's also run well and made quick, accurate throws, demonstrating the all-around fundamentals that are drilled into every player in Japan.

"I don't think I have a specialty here or there. I try to do everything," he said earlier.

Praised Yankees manager Joe Torre: "He's the consummate pro."

All while remaining amazingly humble.

Matsui is as popular back home as Michael Jordan was in his heyday in the United States -- Japan Air Lines just rolled out a Boeing 747 with Matsui's picture on the side. Plus, his No. 55 jersey is among the top sellers at city souvenir shops.

Yet, Matsui might be the most unassuming and most approachable player in the Yankees' clubhouse.

Matsui, who has learned a little bit of English, does an interview session outside the locker room after games for the 100 or so Asian media members who solely follow him. In the rare instances where he makes a mistake on the field, he takes 100 percent of the blame.

Truth be told, the one thing Matsui has not done with ease is hit home runs. A three-time MVP with the Yomiuri Giants, he hit 50 homers last season.

Matsui had only nine homers through New York's first 81 games.

Back in late May, when Matsui was leading the majors in groundouts, impatient owner George Steinbrenner wondered what was wrong.

"All I know is that this is not the guy we signed in terms of power," the Boss said.

No doubt Steinbrenner must've worried whether Matsui would turn out like another Hideki he once imported from Japan -- pitcher Hideki Irabu, a big-bucks bust. A lot of Yankees fans were equally concerned, flooding local sports radio with complaint calls.

Now, even those longballs are starting to come for Matsui.

Going into Monday night's game at Baltimore, he had homered six times in his last 23 games. In that span, he's hit .466 with 28 RBI.

"I'm certainly not hitting as many home runs as I did before," Matsui said. "It's my first season here. Hopefully, as I get used to the baseball here, I'll hit a little more."

Overall, he leads major league rookies in RBI, displaying a knack for delivering key knocks. About the only time he didn't come through -- and it was a lost cause, really -- occurred when he made the final out in Houston's combined no-hitter in the Bronx.

Torre will take everything he's seen from the 29-year-old newcomer, who has not missed a game.

"I think he's going to be a great player," Torre said.

Another thing Matsui has done exceptionally well is make adjustments, as he constantly did during interleague games.

On Sunday night, he was fooled by a curve and struck out swinging the first time he ever faced the Mets' Al Leiter. The next time up, Leiter came back with a curve, and Matsui homered.

A day earlier, Matsui reached base in nine of 10 plate appearances during a sweep of the Mets in a two-park, split doubleheader. In the opener, he hit his second slam of the season, causing his near-fall for the curtain call.

"He's getting a feel for the hitting part of this league now," Torre said. "It took him a little time, but he never panicked."

Fed a steady diet of outside pitches, he's stopped trying to pull them. Instead of weak grounders, he's hitting line drives the other way to left field.

And he's done a better job of recognizing two-seam fastballs, a tailing pitch he did not see in Japan. He's picked up their movement and hammered them.

Mets catcher Jason Phillips saw enough of Matsui during the weekend.

"I just don't know how to get that guy out," he said. "I'm running out of fingers."

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