- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 4, 2009

NEW YORK | The idea of Hideki Matsui always had been bigger than the ballplayer himself. How could it not be?

Nicknamed Godzilla, he arrived from Japan in 2003 as the expensive overseas bauble brought in by a New York team that always had to have the latest and greatest. Yet Matsui’s appeal had never soared quite as high as expected with the Yankees.

Until now.

Six years after signing with the Yankees - and possibly playing his last game in New York - Matsui finally became the hero he was purported to be. With six RBI in Game 6, he tied Bobby Richardson’s 49-year-old World Series record and elevated the Yankees to their 27th championship with a series-clinching 7-3 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday night.

The designated hitter drove in the Yankees’ first runs with a homer off Pedro Martinez in the second inning and a single in the third, ensuring the Yankees’ first title since 2000 and lifting a crushing load of self-made expectations that had mounted since then.

It brought quite a bit to baseball’s flagship franchise. Vindication for Alex Rodriguez after four disappointing postseasons. Validation for manager Joe Girardi, who followed Joe Torre’s quartet of championships with a third-place finish in 2008 and raised doubts about his ability to meet New York’s stratospheric standards. A reasonable rate of return for the Steinbrenner family on their $423.5 million free agent binge last offseason, when they signed pitchers CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett and first baseman Mark Teixeira to hedge against a slip-up in 2009. Another title for Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, the four Yankees players who formed the bridge from Torre’s championship teams to this one.

Yet it was Matsui, whose last championship was still in Japan, who facilitated all of it. He homered three times and drove in eight runs in the series to earn World Series MVP honors despite not starting a game in Philadelphia. Back in the lineup for Game 6 and facing Martinez in the second inning, Matsui began his grand evening. Martinez walked Rodriguez to start the inning. Against Matsui, he kept tossing high-80 mph fastballs over the plate, and Matsui kept blasting 300-foot fouls, signaling he just needed time to straighten one out. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Matsui pushed Martinez over the edge, blasting a fastball to the right-field upper deck for a 2-0 New York lead.

Starting for the second time in New York during this World Series, Martinez was nowhere near the pitcher he was in Game 2. The former Boston Red Sox ace gets by on location now, and while he was able to slip a curveball past the Yankees a few times, his pitches drifted up in the strike zone as the game wore on.

Martinez’s control problems were at their peak by the time Matsui came up again in the third inning. The Yankees loaded the bases against him on a single, walk and hit batsman, causing Phillies manager Charlie Manuel to get Chad Durbin warming in the bullpen. Durbin was ready by the time Matsui came up, but Manuel let Martinez face him.

Again, like a cat toying with its prey, Matsui pulled a would-be base hit just foul before dumping a two-run single in front of center fielder Shane Victorino. He leveled one more blow in the fifth inning, doubling to right off J.A. Happ to bring in two more runs. By the end of that inning, the Yankees led 7-1, all but ensuring Pettitte would win his record sixth series-clinching game and his third of this postseason.

The veteran left-hander gave up a homer to Ryan Howard in the sixth and walked five but allowed only two hits with runners on base. And with Rivera waiting in case of emergency, there was little doubt the defending champions would cede their title to the Yankees.

Matsui first crept into the American conscience in 1994 as a 20-year-old phenom attracting attention in the Japan Series because of the Major League Baseball strike that wiped out the World Series and cost the New York Yankees their first postseason trip in 13 years. He was adored in Japan, plastered across TVs and T-shirts. Late Wednesday night, his Wikipedia page matter-of-factly stated Matsui is freaking awesome, right along with his vitals.

With a younger roster and reserves of cash to spend, New York likely will enter 2010 as the favorite again. The Yankees might not enter it with Matsui, who is due to be a free agent and could leave as the Yankees try to make the DH spot a rotating haven for veterans like Jeter, Rodriguez and Posada.

If he is leaving town, though, he’ll be trailed by a postseason shadow finally as big as the one that followed him west from Japan.

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