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Martin Fennelly Columns

Matsui proves his worth to Rays right away

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Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 04:01 PM

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ST. PETERSBURG -

Holy Hideki!

The cavalry has arrived.

Never mind that the cavalry was hitting .170 in Durham.

The cavalry hit a two-run homer in his second at-bat with the Rays.

Hideki Matsui, 37, will wear No. 35. When word got out, some dedicated Japanese media began snapping photos of Matsui's batting helmet being sprayed and cleaned in the dugout at Tropicana Field as we waited on the man, a classic game of Hideki and Seek.

Greetings, Godzilla.

Matsui and his quiet professionalism joined the Rays on Tuesday night, which made you wonder what was going through his mild-mannered mind as his crazy new teammates surprised him pregame in the clubhouse with disco lights, disco music and one big physical group hug, a Rays tradition normally reserved for postgame celebrations.

Yeah, they did that on the Yankees ...

Matsui played along Tuesday, apparently loved it, in fact.

"I was welcomed in a way I had never experienced in my life before, let's put it that way,'' he said through an interpreter.

And in the fourth inning, a few hours after Matsui deplaned, he crushed a first-pitch fastball deep into the right field seats and the love affair was on, though James Shields and the Rays blew it going away in a 7-2 loss to the White Sox.

Matsui played left field and batted sixth. His every move was tracked. There must have been 25 cameras waiting on Matsui to emerge from the dugout for the first time.

"I'm just happy that I've received a call-up and I'm just going to work hard to help the team, Matsui said.

Just what I thought: a troublemaker.

"He's a really nice man, a respectful man,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

The Rays, fighting a holding action without Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings, are looking for a little something left in Matsui's bat. There was in the fourth.

It's a minimum investment to find out (a reported $900,000 this season), but the payoff could be a huge help if Matsui can still do something, be it at DH, in left field or off the bench as a pinch hitter. Last season, Matsui hit .251 with 11 home runs and 72 RBIs for Oakland. But what's left?

Most anything would be a plus for the Rays. Consider that on Tuesday we were one day removed from Maddon's nonsensical, inexcusable lineup that struck out 15 times. The bottom two-thirds of that batting order belonged on an autopsy table at a medical college.

Cough twice and put in Hideki.

What could it hurt?

"Just his name alone, having him in that lineup, or being available to come off the bench, is definitely going to be big for us over the long run," Rays center fielder B.J. Upton said.

Matsui should be able to ease some strain. He's always been a classy ballplayer, in Japan, where he was three-time MVP, and here, while hitting .285 -- against both righties and lefties.

"He was a professional hitter," said Rays senior advisor Don Zimmer, who was at the Trop on Tuesday. He worked with Matsui on the Yankees. "What he has left I don't know, but he was a true professional. Left-handers didn't run him out of there, either."

Matsui has more than 2,500 hits and clubbed more than 500 homers between here and Japan. And he has always had that flair for the dramatic.

He singled home a run in his first big-league at-bat with the Yankees. In his first game at Yankee Stadium, he hit a grand slam. He hit a grand slam on his 34th birthday. He hit a three-run homer on his 35th birthday. In 2010, in his first game as an Angel, he hit a homer. Hideki has a knack.

And there was that small matter of major clutch as World Series MVP in 2009, six RBIs in the Game 6 clincher alone.

This man set a record by playing 518 consecutive games to start his major league career, a streak that ran 1,768 games when you throw in Japan. When that streak was broken when Matsui broke his wrist, Matsui apologized for getting hurt.

This is the same Matsui who, upon getting married a few years back, produced not his wife for media, but a drawing of her. How do you not love a guy like that?

By the way, in his first game back from that streak-snapping wrist injury, Matsui went 4-for-4 with an RBI -- against the Rays. Like we said, the guy has a knack.

And along came Tuesday.

"I hope he has a little left," Zimmer said. "It would be fun."

So far, so Godzilla.

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