Fri, Jul 09, 2004 - Page 24 News List

Kazuo Matsui gets fan volume turned up for the NY Mets

By LEE JENKINS  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , PHILADELPHIA

Crowds in this country do not typically pound drums, blow whistles and play horns during baseball games, but Kazuo Matsui can sense the volume beginning to build.

He heard the first rumblings at Yankee Stadium, then turned up the dial last weekend at Shea and sustained the noise at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. As the Mets muster a charge in the National League East, Matsui finally seems to have discovered his comfort zone -- in the din of a potential pennant race.

The louder the environment, the more comfortable Matsui appears to become. During the early phases of his first major league season, Matsui missed the Japanese fans known for carrying megaphones and plastic noisemakers to the ballparks. He craved the sounds of baseball in his homeland.

Playing in front of corporate crowds in Atlanta, neutral observers in Puerto Rico and empty seats at Shea Stadium, Matsui felt as if he were truly in a foreign land. The excitement of a regular-season game was truly a half a world away.

Matsui's play was as lackluster as his surroundings. Matsui, the Mets' shortstop, assumed the league lead in errors and was in the top 10 in strikeouts, and his batting average dropped below .250. He made casual sidearm throws to first and took wild swings at pitches in the dirt.

As the stakes were raised, however, his concentration level increased. During the past week, Matsui hit .367, scored 12 runs and added 2 home runs. On Wednesday night, he had four hits in the Mets' 10-1 victory over the NL East-leading Phillies.

While his success has been widely attributed to his new place in the batting order -- he was dropped from first to second -- manager Art Howe placed the credit on a charged fan base.

"What he's done has coincided with the big crowds we're playing in front of," Howe said Wednesday. "He likes that. He likes to perform."

Asked what he will do when the team travels to Montreal and 5,000 people are in the stands, Howe joked, "I won't play him."

When the Mets signed Matsui in the off-season, they advertised him as a slick-fielding speedster who could anchor the top of the lineup and bring some surprising power. But Matsui was best known in Japan for timing and showmanship, two aspects of his game that have apparently translated.

For all the expectations Matsui failed to meet in the first half, he hit the first pitch he saw for a home run on opening day in Atlanta, hit a home run off Randy Johnson in a 1-0 victory at Arizona and set a team record with five leadoff homers.

The Mets say his sense of occasion will become an even greater asset if they play more games of significance and get even larger turnouts.

"It's just a pleasure to be able to play in front of big crowds," Matsui said through his interpreter. "It gives me more energy. The power of the crowd gives you infinite energy."

Howe said he believed Matsui would be at his best in the late stages of a pennant race and into the postseason. In order to get there, however, Matsui must treat every midsummer game -- even those in Montreal -- as if it is at Yankee Stadium or Citizens Bank Park.

When Matsui hears himself characterized as a showman or a performer, he laughs hard and then shakes his head so vigorously it appears his cap might pop off. "No," he said through his interpreter. "I'm a ballplayer."

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