You’d be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was over Matsui, the slick-fielding, speedy Japanese import, especially after watching him look generally lost at the plate during an exhibition schedule in which he hit just .192.
Matsui’s eye-popping performance Tuesday in Atlanta hinted that he, like fellow countryman Hideki Matsui of the Yankees, may also have a flair for the dramatic.
One can only imagine the culture shock that Matsui and other Japanese players deal with as they try to acclimate to a foreign culture. Simply taking the field in a major-league uniform should be enough to spark jitters by itself, but leading off the major-league season with 68 Japanese media members on hand and millions of bleary, early-morning eyes watching half a world away?
That could be absolutely frightening.
Mets outfielder Mike Cameron had tried to soothe Matsui’s rattled nerves before the game, telling reporters that he'd advised the Japanese import to settle down and “play like you did in Japan.”
Matsui – a notorious first-pitch swinger who belted 33 home runs last season in his native country – took the message to heart, whipping the bat through the zone and jumping all over Ortiz’s first offering, a fat fastball down the heart of the plate.
Bad idea: from the on-deck circle, Matsui was already thinking fastball, long before he’d even watched Ortiz throw his warm-up pitches.
“I thought about swinging at the first pitch,” Matsui admitted to reporters, “but I don’t think anyone imagined it would be a home run. I just thought I would hit it as hard as I could.”
The blast sparked a raucous and wide-eyed celebration in the Mets dugout, the kind of youthful enthusiasm that was missing through so much of an injury-plagued spring schedule. Finally, the Mets could put the doldrums of Port St. Lucie aside and focus on the ballgames that actually count: with Matsui at the top of the order, that future suddenly looks far brighter than any Florida afternoon.
Matsui didn’t stop there, racking up two more hits in the game – both doubles, including a run-scoring hit in the second inning -- and patiently working out a bases-loaded walk in the third that staked starter Tom Glavine to a 6-2 lead.
Glavine was 0-4 against the Braves last season, the target of abuse both on and off of the field in Atlanta. But Matsui’s stunning debut performance provided enough firepower for Glavine to finally quell the Braves demon, throwing six innings of two run, four-hit ball to notch his first victory and quality start of the year.
“This one can change perception,” Glavine told reporters.
With a Mets roster that had grown so accustomed to serving as a charity punching bag for the Braves, especially when shacking up in the visiting dugout at Turner Field, Matsui’s homer served as a welcome reminder that in a new season, anything is possible.
“You hope a guy comes out and has a good start, but wow,” Howe said.
Mets Briefs: Matsui became the first player to homer leading off an Opening Day game since Boston’s Dwight Evans in 1986. He was the third Met to homer in his first major league at-bat, joining Benny Ayala (1974) and Mike Fitzgerald (1983), and the second major league player to hit his first home run on Opening Day, joining Philadelphia’s Emmett Mueller in 1938 … rightfielder Karim Garcia made two sliding catches in right field to support Glavine’s effort … Mike Piazza homered in the third inning off Ortiz, bringing him three shy of Carlton Fisk’s mark of 351 home runs by a catcher … the Mets extended Steve Trachsel’s contract through the 2005 season, and an option for 2006 could kick in if Trachsel throws 150 innings next year.
Wire content was used in compiling this report.
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