Rays end experiment with aging Matsui

BY foxsports • July 25, 2012

The Hideki Matsui era in Tampa Bay began with a bang three months ago, a jammed press conference at Tropicana Field that included some 40 members of the Japanese media, followed by a pair of towering home runs in two of his first three games.

It ended Wednesday afternoon with a whimper, a short press release announcing that Matsui’s days as a Ray were over.

The slumping Japanese slugger had gone from designated hitter to designated for assignment, making room for newly acquired veteran infielder Ryan Roberts on the 40-man roster.

That means the Rays have 10 days to trade Matsui, release him or place him on waivers — the latest move for a team still looking for a way to kick-start its ailing offense while awaiting the return of injured star Evan Longoria.

The only questions now: Will the 38-year-old icon nicknamed Godzilla hang up his cleats for good after a remarkable career in his home country and the United States, and what happens to the large contingent of Japanese writers and broadcasters covering him with the Rays?

Chances are they’ll be designated for assignment by their editors to New York  City, where they can chronicle the Big Apple adventures of just-traded Seattle Mariners fixture Ichiro Suzuki.

Of course, the lingering question is how Matsui could have faded so quickly after such a promising start with the Rays. No doubt his lack of a full spring training worked against him, and the rehab assignment through the club’s minor leagues simply wasn’t enough to help him get back in the groove.

It also became painfully obvious that Matsui couldn’t catch up with the speed of major league fastballs, as he flailed ineffectively en route to a .147 batting average (14 for 95) with 22 strikeouts — a far cry from the man named Most Valuable Player of the 2009 World Series for the New York Yankees.

Manager Joe Maddon noted last week that the powerful lefty hitter seemed to be pressing and held out hope that he would come around. He continued to send Matsui to the plate in key situations, knowing that one good shot to the gap might provide a crucial boost to his confidence. But it never happened.

His final at-bat as Ray on Sunday pretty much summed up his tenure — a weak pop-up to short on the first pitch, killing a possible game-winning rally as the final out in a 2-1 loss to Seattle.

He was met by boos — hardly the scenario anyone had envisioned when he signed a minor league contract April 30. Ironically, this season marked Matsui’s 10th season in the majors, making him the first player in baseball history to play 10 seasons in Japan Pro Baseball and 10 in Major League Baseball.

But for the Rays, he appeared in only 34 games with the Rays, including 23 starts — 10 as DH, seven in left and six in right. And he finished as one more frustrating story line in a season that has abounded with them so far for Tampa Bay.

Maddon and executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman both spoke of Matsui’s dedication, pride and professionalism, and clearly he must have known that the end was near as well.

His departure Wednesday spares — at least for the moment — the fate of journeyman infielder Brooks Conrad. His two-run homer Tuesday night helped give the Rays a moral-boosting 3-1 victory at Baltimore, yet speculation had hinged on Conrad being demoted to Durham to clear a spot for Roberts.

Instead, Conrad remains for now, while the focus shifts to the the former Arizona Diamondbacks third baseman and second baseman, acquired Tuesday night for minor league second baseman Tyler Bortnick.

Roberts, 31, represents an offensive upgrade to the players who have been filling the void left by Longoria’s two-month absence with a hamstring tear. In 83 games, he hit .250 this season for Arizona — impressive by Rays’ standards — with six homers and 34 RBI, along with six stolen bases. He played 60 games at third (with 57 starts) while also playing a handful of games at second and in left. And he was 6 for 18 as a pinch hitter.

He also gives the Rays another right-handed hitter, something they need in their lineup. His best season came last year with a .249 batting average, 19 homers, 65 RBI, 18 stolen bases and 66 walks. And in the 2011, NLDS, Roberts batted .350 (7 for 20) with two homers and six RBI.

Those are the kind of numbers that can help a team wallowing with a dismal batting average in the .230 range this season. In addition, Roberts is known for his high energy and strong work ethic, earning Arizona’s MLB Players Association Heart and Hustle Award last season.

His arrival coincides with word from Maddon earlier Tuesday that Longoria was making excellent progress in his baseball activities, and that his rehab assignment “is closer than you think.” It’s possible that Longoria, who was hitting .329 at the time of his injury April 30, could start an assignment of 3-4 games during the course of the current nine-game road trip.

“Are we over the hump yet?” Maddon said to reporters in Baltimore. “Not entirely. But definitely optimistic.”

Having a decent hitter and fielder such as Roberts at third would allow Longoria to return to the lineup initially as a DH. His biggest issue in the field has been making back-hand plays, moving across his body to the right, but he wasn’t bothered by that in his workout with the team in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, the Rays got some other good news with the 2012 regular-season debut Tuesday night by Sam Fuld. Starting in left field, Fuld batted seventh and produced a hit, walk and stolen base — and scored on Conrad’s homer. His presence gives Maddon an array of options.

He can use Fuld to rest left fielder Desmond Jennings or center fielder B.J. Upton. He can use him as a pinch hitter or pinch runner due to his speed. And he can use him as a top-notch defensive replacement.

And Maddon knows the kind of spark Fuld provided when he began with the Rays in 2011, both at the plate and in the outfield. He’s hoping for even a mild repeat of that performance now, and Tuesday night wasn’t a bad way to start.

Against the backdrop of all the roster shifts, trade rumors continue to swirl about starting pitcher and longtime Tampa Bay workhorse James Shields. The latest one centers around discussions between the Rays and Angels, with Shields going to Anaheim in exchange for centerfielder Peter Bourjos, catcher Hank Conger and either pitcher Ervin Santana or cash.

But rumors are always rampant prior to trade deadline (4 p.m. next Tuesday) and the Rays don’t have a history of going for big trades mid-season. It’s also doubtful that they would get rid of Shields while they’re still in contention for the second Wild Card spot.

That won’t stop speculation from flying for the next week. But for now, all we know is that the Rays have bid farewell to a hitter who’d lost his spark — and are counting the days to the return of a hitter that might provide one.

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