Print and Go Back ESPN.com: MLB Playoffs 2003 [Print without images]

Sunday, October 19, 2003
Updated: October 20, 4:22 AM ET
Monster post-season for Godzilla

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- The Tokyo (Yomiuri) Giants are the most famous team in Japan sports, they win all the time, they're richer than everybody else and their owner is obnoxious. So in that respect, it shouldn't have been much of an adjustment for Hideki Matsui when he signed with the Yankees last winter.

Matsui
Matsui

But it was, of course.

Adjusting to a different league, a different language and a different culture isn't easy even when George Steinbrenner isn't looking over your shoulder and there aren't a couple dozen reporters assigned to write about you -- and only you -- every day. And Matsui did struggle early on. He was a three-time MVP in Japan who threatened Sadaharu Oh's single-season record but he was hitting only .250 with just three home runs in June.

You could practically hear Steinbrenner fuming. I paid $23 million for this guy and I get David Dellucci? Fire Costanza!

Much to the relief of Steinbrenner and Japanese headline writers, Matsui adjusted and finished the season as a leading rookie of the year candidate, with a .287 average, 16 home runs and 106 RBI. He's been even better this postseason, hitting .327 with 10 RBI, both club highs. He hit three doubles against Pedro Martinez during the Boston series, driving in the go-ahead run in Game 3 and scoring the tying run in Game 7. He's hit safely in six consecutive games, including Sunday's Game 2 when he slammed a three-run first inning home run that woke up a team and a fan base that snored through the series opener.

As his home run sailed over the center-field fence, it was as if everyone in Yankee Stadium woke up and realized that gee, this was the World Series.

"We had been struggling for runs through that whole Boston series,'' manager Joe Torre said. "To jump up there and get three runs, it really helped our personality. There's no question.''

Not that anyone should be surprised that Matsui is excelling under postseason pressure. He has been playing under an intense spotlight since he was a teenager in Japan's prestigious nationwide high school tournament, which is as big there as the NCAA tournament is here, only without Dick Vitale.

That tournament turned Matsui into a national hero and he grew even bigger when he joined the Giants and became the country's leading home run hitter. His father even runs a museum dedicated to him.

Matsui dreamed of bigger ponds, however, and signed with the Yankees last winter in a deal that smacked so much of backroom maneuvering you could smell the cigar smoke on the contract.

"I was surprised when I first saw him,'' shortstop Derek Jeter said. "You hear the name Godzilla and you assume he's a guy who swings for the fences all the time. But he's a good hitter and he knows the strike zone. He's also an outstanding outfielder, which you don't expect from someone nicknamed Godzilla.'' "Before I saw him, I was a little concerned because it's tough to change not only leagues but countries, and expect to be this big power hitter,'' Torre said. "I saw him in spring training and I saw a different person. He's more of a line drive hitter and I like that a whole lot better because that would fit with us a lot better.

"By the time we left spring training, Don Zimmer and I both thought he'd hit .300 and drive in 100 runs. He has a very solid swing, plus he knows how to hit in key situations.''

It's that ability to hit that prompted Torre to give Matsui the green light on a 3-0 count Sunday night against Florida starter Mark Redman. Knowing Matsui wouldn't be overanxious or try to pull the ball, Torre let him swing away and Matsui drilled it into the night for the first World Series home run hit by a native Japanese player.

"He's a pretty good hitter,'' Florida manager Jack McKeon said. "If you got a 3-0 count and they lay a fastball down the middle, I think you could be a pretty good hitter, too.''

Matsui is more outgoing than Ichiro and he actually likes talking with reporters. But the mass press conferences of the postseason do not facilitate that aspect of his personality. Imagine Nuke LaLoosh tutored by Crash Davis translated by an official Yankees official and you get an idea of the type of quotes he delivered after his home run.

"The three-run home run was really big for the team and it also was very important for today's win,'' Mastui said. "Hopefully, it was also a help to Andy Pettitte with his pitching today.''

See?

Matsui did say the World Series has been a continuous escalation of big games in his career, from the high school tournament to the Japan Series and now to the World Series.

The only question is where he advances from here. After homering in the World Series in Yankee Stadium, he's raised the bar pretty high for himself.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.