Godzilla’s Last Roar? Hideki Matsui’s Quietly Excellent Season

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Photo: Getty Images

Hideki Matsui hit a dramatic walk-off homer last night to beat the Orioles and give the Yankees their fourth straight win. (They’re now eighteen games over .500, their highest mark of the season and the best they’ve been since September 30, 2007.) It’s the second walk-off of Matsui’s career — he received the requisite postgame pie in the face from A.J. Burnett — and he seemed, for once, legitimately excited by it: Before touching home plate, he tossed his helmet into the air in celebration, something he’s never done before. (A-Rod, looking unusually chipper himself, was the one who encouraged him to heave the hat.)

All of which had us thinking: Has it really been seven years since Matsui’s grand introduction as a Yankee — since he was thought of as the oversize Japanese hero from the Yomiuri Giants who, unlike other traditional Japanese hitters, hit long majestic homers rather than slapping opposite-field singles? (Although, by the way, his “Godzilla” nickname in Japan was less for his size and strength and more for his “lizardly complexion.”) Matsui played baseball like an American, so it was inevitable he’d find his way here (even though when he signed he admitted, “"I hope people don't think I'm a traitor”). He has since dazzled us with his power, nearly doubled the size of the Yankees press corps (with Japanese reporters), and introduced us to his porn habit.

But it’s been a strange year for Matsui. The guy who once held a record in Japan for consecutive games played — 1,768 in a row, counting 518 with the Yankees — has turned fragile more recently, and this season, the once moderately adept fielder has appeared only as a designated hitter and a pinch hitter. (He had knee surgery before the season, and it never has quite healed enough for him to play the field.) The funny thing is, he’s having one of his best seasons as a Yankee. His slugging percentage is .516, the highest since 2004, and his fourteen homers — five more than he had last season, when he played in twelve more games — place him fourth on the team. His injuries since 2005 have caused Matsui, who once was actually referred to as “the pipeline to another billion-dollar Yankees revenue stream,” to fade into the background despite quietly having an excellent season.

Meanwhile, as strange as it might be to think of Matsui wearing another team’s uniform, it’s very likely to happen: He’s a free agent after this season, and the Yankees have enough aging hitters who can’t play defense hanging around. Matsui’s making $13 million this year, way too much for a guy who just DHs and can barely run the bases anymore. The Yankees already have a payroll of more than $166 million committed to next year’s roster, and they need a center-fielder and at least one other outfielder. The Yanks will either have to get awfully creative with Matsui in the off-season … or they’ll have to just drop him.

So enjoy him while you can. It has been a fun seven years with Godzilla. He might not have conquered King Kong and Gotham, but, you know, he did all right.