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ANGELS FYI

Hideki Matsui's hitting isn't front-page news in Japan

Designated hitter has been slumping, but he has rebounded before.

May 19, 2010|By Ben Bolch

Reporting from Chicago -- Accounts of Hideki Matsui's exploits have drifted deeper inside the sports sections of Japanese newspapers in recent weeks, the designated hitter's prolonged slump taking him off the front page on most days.

"If he hits a home run, that's a big story for us," said Gaku Tashiro, a reporter for Tokyo-based Sankei Sports. "But now we have smaller articles."

Matsui hasn't exactly provided tantalizing fodder this month. He's hitting .133 over his last 21 games, his average plummeting from .310 to .224 following his 0-for-3 performance Wednesday at U.S. Cellular Field during the Angels' 3-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox.

Tashiro, who has covered Matsui since his first season with the New York Yankees seven years ago, said the slugger's struggles are reminiscent of a stretch he endured in May 2003 when the New York media dubbed him "Ground Ball King" because of his inability to hit the ball out of the infield.

Matsui was having difficulty hitting the two-seam fastball, a pitch rarely thrown in Japan's Central League. Joe Torre, then the Yankees manager, advised Matsui to move two inches closer to the plate, and he responded with a home run against Cincinnati that sparked a breakthrough.

"We are still looking for that similar day for him this year," Tashiro said.

Matsui acknowledged through an interpreter that his comfort level at the plate "is not quite there yet," but he said his arthritic knees feel good and that he has endured longer slumps in his career.

"In my mind, what I'm working toward is just making sure I improve my swing on a daily basis," Matsui said.

Throughout his struggles, Matsui has remained unfailingly polite in his daily dealings with the 20 or so Japanese reporters traveling with the Angels. Tashiro said Matsui hasn't given any possible explanation for his slide, but reporters have refrained from speculating that the 35-year-old's career may be in decline.

All they have to do is look at last season. Matsui hit .241 in May and .204 in June before rebounding over the season's final three months. He did all right for himself in the World Series too, hitting .615 on the way to being selected most valuable player.

Something left

Manager Mike Scioscia said Matsui probably will play left field in at least one of the Angels' interleague games against St. Louis this weekend with the designated hitter spot unavailable in a National League park.

Matsui could conceivably play in the outfield on back-to-back days during interleague play, Scioscia said, but more days in a row than that at the position "would not be smart" considering Matsui's physical limitations.

Mr. Versatility

Scioscia said Maicer Izturis will play four or five games a week when he returns from the disabled list, but the utility infielder won't take over for struggling third baseman Brandon Wood on an everyday basis.

Izturis will fill in for Wood, shortstop Erick Aybar and second baseman Howie Kendrick on a rotating schedule, Scioscia said.

"These guys are going to need days off, and right now they're not getting a lot," Scioscia said.

Izturis, limited to 14 games this season because of inflammation in his right shoulder, could return in about a week.

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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