04/06/2004 11:50 PM ET
First things first: Kaz hits HR
By Kevin T. Czerwinski / MLB.com
|Ty Wiggington (left) and Kazuo Matsui celebrate after defeating the Braves on Tuesday. (John Bazemore/AP)
ATLANTA -- Kazuo Matsui may not be too good at making predictions but he certainly showed that he has no problems making adjustments.
Matsui slammed a home run on the first Major League pitch he saw, taking Russ Ortiz's offering over the center-field wall on Tuesday night at Turner Field. He is the 20th player to homer on the first pitch in his first Major League at-bat. The last player to do so was the Yankees' Marcus Thames on July 10, 2002.
Matsui went 3-for-3, doubling twice and picking up a bases-loaded walk to drive in three runs in what is surely one of the most memorable Major League debuts in history.
While the Mets rocked the Braves, 7-2, providing Tom Glavine with his first victory against his former teammates, it was Matsui who stole the show. Based on what Matsui said a day earlier, though, one would never have guessed that he would get off to such a start.
Matsui recalled on Monday his first at-bat as a Seibu Lion in 1995. He got a hit and drove in a run in his Pacific League debut but when asked what the chances were of his replicating that feat in America, he said in perfect English, "No chance."
So much for predictions. The sellout crowd at Turner Field hadn't even settled into its seats before Matsui turned on an Ortiz fastball. The 429-foot shot sailed over the center-field wall, stunning the crowd while bringing the New York bench to its feet. The time, 7:36. Better yet, it was 8:36 on Wednesday morning in Japan, where the game was being nationally televised.
"I thought about swinging at the first pitch but I don't think anyone imagined I would hit a home run," Matsui said. "I didn't think I would. I just thought I would hit it as hard as a I could and the result came out as a homer."
Matsui became the third Met to homer in his first Major League at-bat, joining Benny Ayala (Aug. 27, 1974 vs. Houston) and Mike Fitzgerald (Sept. 13, 1983) vs. Philadelphia.
In addition, he became the first player since 1938 and only the second player since 1900 to hit his first Major League home run while leading off on Opening Day. He is also the first player since Dwight Evans (1986) to homer on the first pitch of the season. The last Met to have three hits in his debut was Preston Wilson (May 7, 1998).
Matsui wasn't finished, though. He doubled into the right-field corner in the second inning, scoring Glavine and then walked with the bases loaded off Juan Cruz in the third. He added his second double in the fifth inning off Cruz. By the time he came to bat in the seventh with runners on second and third, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox had seen enough, and intentionally walked Matsui.
"Obviously he's a good player," Ortiz said. "He wouldn't be getting the fame if he wasn't. But it's hard for me to say how good he is when I threw him pitches down the middle. Any big-league hitter can hit those."
Considering what Matsui went through during Spring Training, Tuesday's effort was nothing short of stunning. He came to the Mets with a reputation as a big-time player but was slowed by a split finger on his throwing hand early in camp. When he finally got into the lineup, it was clear that he was having trouble catching up with cut fastballs and that breaking balls were a nemesis, swinging wildly more often than not.
He finished the spring with a .192 batting average, leading manager Art Howe to offer publicly that he might take Matsui out of the leadoff spot. Though he began to have a better approach at the plate during the final few exhibition games, most of the talk around Matsui in recent days was about how much time it would ultimately take him to adjust.
"He realizes now what he can do when he's on," said Mike Piazza, who also blasted a solo homer. "He's got a lot of talent. That's a big lift for us. He came out and he had confidence tonight. That's what we need him to do the rest of the year."
Howe told Matsui that he had been "lying in the weeds" when he returned to the dugout following the homer, referring to his sketchy Spring Training performance. Still, Howe added that you can't measure what that home run meant, not only to Matsui but to the team as well.
"When he hit that first ball, I wish you were in the dugout," Howe said. "For him to get off to that kind of start is a fairy tale."
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.