Matsui settling in with Astros

February 21, 2008 6:35:41 PM PST
Kaz Matsui laughed when Miguel Tejada walked into the Houston Astros clubhouse wearing a T-shirt bearing Japanese characters. Tejada had no idea what they meant -- a friend in Japan sent him the shirt without an explanation -- so he naturally asked Matsui, the Astros' first Japanese position player.

Matsui said the phrase was "makko shobu," which translates to "hand to hand" or "mano a mano" in Tejada's native Spanish.

Glad to help, Houston's new regular second baseman has already settled in comfortably at spring training with the Astros, his third team in two years.

"It's been only a few days here, but it's been great," Matsui said through a translator. "The team has set up a good environment. I have to try to fit in."

The 32-year-old Matsui batted .288 with four homers and 37 RBIs with Colorado in 2007, helping the Rockies reach their first World Series. Houston signed him in December, needing a full-time second baseman after Craig Biggio's retirement.

General manager Ed Wade said Matsui will bat second behind speedster Michael Bourn, giving the Astros two base-stealing threats at the top of the lineup. Matsui stole 32 bases last season, his highest total since 2002, when he still played for the Seibu Lions in Japan.

"He's a prototypical No. 2 hitter," Wade said. "He can run, he knows how to advance runners, he'll bunt and play that game. Once in a while, he'll surprise you and hit one hard into the gap. Plus, the defense. His range is outstanding, his hands are outstanding. He'll make the plays there."

Wade shrugged off Matsui's struggles with the New York Mets, who signed him before the 2004 season. He homered in his first at-bat, but his numbers steadily declined over 2 1/2 disappointing seasons.

He was traded to Colorado in June 2006 and relaxed once he was away from the pressure and scrutiny that came with playing in the Big Apple.

"I was expected to make good results and I was focusing hard on only the results," Matsui said. "I couldn't concentrate on myself. When I was in Colorado, I could do things more at my own pace."

Matsui hit .300 with six homers and 56 RBIs in 136 games with the Rockies, and Wade is counting on that kind of production with Houston. Like the Rockies, the Astros usually play away from an intense media spotlight.

Wade remembers the hype when Hideki Matsui, who's not related to Kaz, signed with the New York Yankees in December 2002.

"When the first Matsui showed up in New York, everyone said, 'This guy is really good, but wait 'til you see the next Matsui. He's even better,"' Wade said. "Those expectations in an environment like New York can be somewhat overwhelming."

Small groups of Japanese reporters have shown up every day in Kissimmee to see Matsui since the Astros held their first full-squad workout on Tuesday. He's accommodated all of them, patiently smiling as he answers their questions.

He's worked hard on his English, but he's hesitant to use what he knows with American reporters. Some of his teammates are trying to learn Japanese in exchange for tutoring him in their language.

Bourn told Matsui he wanted to learn two phrases each day. Between turns inside the batting cage on Thursday, Matsui schooled Bourn on how to say "thank you" ("arigato") and "you're welcome" ("do itashi mashite"). Bourn repeated "do itashi mashite" over and over and finally pronounced it perfectly.

"Whoa!" Matsui said, as his eyes widened. "Good!"

Catcher Alberto Castillo, a non-roster invitee, skipped the language lesson and found another way to communicate with Matsui, teaching him a complicated secret handshake after Thursday's workout.

For Tejada, the shortstop, learning to communicate with Matsui is more of a necessity. The two will constantly be on the field together and will have to alert each other on double-play or steal situations or what pitch is about to be thrown.

Tejada said they won't have trouble solving the language barrier because the game itself has terms that they both understand. "We know baseball, we know the words of baseball," Tejada said. "We're going to be fine."

About an hour after the Astros finished the workout, Matsui was jogging alone around one of the practice fields with only socks on his feet, one more sign of how comfortable he is with his new team.

"It is baseball, so it is the same everywhere," Matsui said. "I'm excited to be with my team. I'm excited to get to know the city. It (the transition) will be easy."

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