Thunder make room for Matsui

Rehabbing Yankees slugger forces changes in playoff lineup

(Matt Mullen/

September 6, 2006 4:55 PM ET

TRENTON, N.J. -- When Hideki Matsui was asked on Wednesday night when he'd be ready to return to New York, the veteran outfielder from Japan said wanted the Yankees to make that decision for him.

Matsui singled in a run in his first rehab appearance Wednesday, helping the Trenton Thunder to a 3-1 victory over the Portland Sea Dogs in Game 1 of their Eastern League North Division playoff series at Waterfront Park.

Matsui, who broke his left wrist while sliding to make a catch of a sinking liner on May 11 at Yankee Stadium, is scheduled to play the entire series. He was Trenton's designated hitter in the opener, a role in which he is expected to serve again on Thursday. Yankees manager Joe Torre has indicated Matsui will be his DH when the slugger returns to New York.

"I guess it's hard to say from my standpoint," Matsui said when asked when he thought he might return to the Yankees. "If they could help me decide, that would be great."

Matsui struck out in the first inning and lined hard to right field in the fourth. With runners on first and second and two outs in the fifth, the Sea Dogs had starter Devern Hansack walk the outfielder, who was hitting right-handers at a .389 clip when he was injured.

"We had faced this kid before," Trenton manager Bill Masse said. "He's tough on left-handers. I was saying this ain't no walk in the park for anybody. Hideki found that our real quick. Hansack was throwing him changeups and breaking balls. That's what you have to have to get your timing on offspeed stuff and breaking balls. If guys throw him 95 mph fastballs, he's going to hit it."

Matsui said he began to feel better as the game progressed. His RBI followed the go-ahead base hit by Randy Ruiz in the seventh.

"After every at-bat, the comfort level got better every time," Matsui said through his interpreter.

Matsui is charting new territory. He played in 1,250 consecutive games with the Yomiuri Giants of the Japanese Pacific League before signing with the Yankees. He also played in his first 518 games with the Yankees, surpassing the Major League record of 424 consecutive games to start a career established by Hall of Famer Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs between 1953-56.

Matsui said he wouldn't change his approach because the Thunder are in the playoffs. And Masse said he doesn't expect the outfielder to alter his routine.

"The approach I have to games is not going to change," Matsui said. "My approach is to give the best I have at the moment. That's not going to change the way I approach the game, the way I approach playing."

Of course, things are different for the Thunder.

First, there is the large contingent of Japanese media that follows Matsui wherever he goes. The Thunder distributed 90 media credentials and most were for reporters representing Japanese outlets.

Second, outfielder Vince Faison, one of Trenton's best hitters, must take a spot on the bench while Matsui is around.

Third, Trenton right fielder Shelley Duncan had to give Matsui his No. 55 and take the No. 62 normally worn by his friend Eric Duncan, who is on the disabled list with a back injury.

"That's the only one that was left that fit," said Duncan, son of St. Louis Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan. "I had to call Eric last night and beg him to use it."

Duncan said he wasn't expecting any gifts for giving up the number, admitting he had no choice.

The loss of Faison for a few games might hurt more emotionally than production-wise if Matsui is able to contribute offensively. Faison was third on the team with 14 home runs and second with 66 RBIs.

"Sure, it's hard, but that's part of the job," Masse said when asked about losing Faison. "People forget we've been here for five months, sweating it out, riding buses, all that kind of stuff. You want to win a championship and you want guys who contributed to your team to be involved, especially in the playoffs.

"But that's part of the job. Obviously, Hideki Matsui comes first because your main goal is getting guys ready for the big leagues."

Matsui didn't seem too excited that he was finally going to play again. He was batting .295 with five homers and 19 RBIs in 32 games at the time of the injury.

The veteran said his months rehabilitating alone were even kind of fun.

"I've never been hurt, but I kind of found joy," Matsui said. "When you get hurt, you see a little bit of movement and ability that is coming back, even if it's a little bit. I was amazed how happy I was about it."

NEXT UP: The Sea Dogs and Thunder play Game 2 on Thursday night. LHP Tommy Hottovy (2-4, 4.17 ERA) is scheduled to pitch for Portland, while Trenton counters with RHP Tyler Clippard (12-10, 3.35 ERA). Hottovy was 0-1 with a 13.50 ERA in one start against the Thunder during the season, while Clippard did not face Portland.

REVENGE FACTOR: Portland manager Todd Claus said he's certain the Thunder, favored to win this series, will find motivation to avenge last year's playoff loss to the Sea Dogs.

"They are all about payback, or however you want to put it," Claus said. "They'd like some redemption. There is no doubt in my mind they are a very good baseball club and they are going to show up to win."

READING MATTER: Masse said he visited Japan as a member of the U.S. Olympic Team in 1988 and found himself rather overwhelmed by the experience.

"I actually read my first book I ever read in my life there," Masse recalled. "I did. I mean for fun, not like in school."

The book was Misery by Stephen King.

"I got so caught up in that dumb book I couldn't hit that night," Masse said, drawing a laugh. "All I cared about was what happened in that book. I couldn't concentrate on hitting. I went home, I finished it and threw it away. I haven't read another book since I was so caught up in it. It was horrible."

Kit Stier is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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