- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 21, 2009

NEW YORK | Hideki Matsui rounded third base, headed home and saw teammates gesturing upward with their hands.

“I was just going to step on home plate, just normally,” he said. “But they told me to throw my helmet. So I threw my helmet.”

The usually reserved Japanese star homered off Jim Johnson in the ninth inning Monday night to beat the Baltimore Orioles and give the streaking New York Yankees 2-1 wins in three straight games for the first time in 18 years.

“I’ve never done it before, so yeah, in that sense, yes, it’s a little uncomfortable,” Matsui said through a translator, “but I’d like to follow whatever the team’s rules are.”

Matsui lined a 2-2 pitch into the right-field seats off Johnson (3-4) for his second game-ending homer in the majors - the other was as a rookie July 17, 2003, against Cleveland’s David Riske. A.J. Burnett got Matsui with a whipped cream pie in front of the Yankees’ dugout.

New York (55-37), which tied Boston atop the AL East for only the second time since early June, stretched its post All-Star-break winning streak to four and moved 18 games over .500 for first time since the end of 2007 season (94-68). The Yankees got some stellar defense, throwing out runners at the plate on consecutive pitches in the eighth to keep the score tied at 1-1.

Alfredo Aceves (6-1) escaped a two-on jam in the ninth when Nolan Reimold hit an inning-ending flyout.

Matsui then homered with one out in the ninth, taking two balls and fouling off three pitches before his 15th homer this season. He has struggled at times following left knee surgery last Sept. 22 and might be in his final season with the Yankees. But he is hitting .349 with five homers and 14 RBI in 43 at-bats since missing nine straight starts while during interleague games at NL ballparks from June 19 to 28.

“Maybe the 10 days was really good for him,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. “I think when you battle through injuries and trying to strengthen your body and get back and pressing and pressing to get back to healthy, it can wear on you.”

Nick Markakis hit a first-inning homer off Andy Pettitte, and Eric Hinske’s second-inning homer against Baltimore’s David Hernandez tied it. The three homers raised the total at new Yankee Stadium to 152 in 46 games, just eight shy of the total hit all of last season at New York’s old home.

Cesar Izturis’ one-out single and Brian Roberts’ double off the right-field wall chased Pettitte in the eighth. Phil Coke relieved, and Nick Markakis grounded to first baseman Mark Teixeira. The two-time Gold Glove winner made an off-balance throw home to the first-base side of the plate.

Jose Molina caught it, with the ball visible, reached across his body and put his glove down, where Izturis slid into the tag.

“We hit the ball to the wrong guy. That’s all there is to it,” Orioles manager Dave Trembley said.

Teixeira gave Molina the credit.

“For me, the tag is more impressive because, you know, he’s got to know exactly where the plate is, exactly where the guy’s sliding and he’s blind,” he said.

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