Yankees get back to .500

Posted: Thursday, April 01, 2004

TOKYO Hideki Matsui stood at home plate, received a samurai helmet called the Kabuto, and raised the gold-and-red armor high for the crowd to see. The New York Yankees' traditional domination had been restored.

Matsui rocked the Tokyo Dome with a two-run homer, thrilling the Japanese fans who worship him. Jorge Posada hit three-run shots from both sides of the plate, Kevin Brown won his first start in pinstripes and the Yankees calmed their jittery supporters back home by routing the Tampa Bay Devil Rays 12-1 Wednesday night.

''Hopefully, we can have many more games like this,'' Matsui told the cheering crowd from a podium near home plate after the game.

After a listless 8-3 loss on opening day, fans back home who got up at 5 a.m. had been infuriated, expecting greatness from their heroes, not grogginess. And then the Yankees fell behind in the first inning when Aubrey Huff hit an RBI single. Owner George Steinbrenner took the first loss calmly, saying, ''It's not where you start, it's where you finish.'' But an 0-2 trip might have led to a different tune.

''In fact, I made a comment when we were down 1-0 in the first,'' Yankees manager Joe Torre said. ''I felt a little tenseness in there. I said, 'Guys, what's the worst thing that can happen? We lose 162 games, big deal. We can still eat, and you're still going to get paid.'''

But a day after Tampa Bay surprised the Yankees, the Bronx' Bombers potent offense restored the old order appropriate for a country tied to tradition in another game that started before dawn in New York.

Matsui tied it with an RBI single in the third. Tony Clark, in the lineup at first base because Jason Giambi's left knee is hurt and Travis Lee is on the disabled list, put New York ahead with a two-run homer in the fourth.

Then, in the fifth, came the moment fans wanted to see.

Matsui, a home-run hero during 10 seasons with the Yomiuri Giants, teed off on a belt-high pitch from Jeremi Gonzalez, sending it deep into the seats in right-center.

Flashbulbs popped. Fans jumped and stayed up for a standing ovation, a rarity in Japan. Some of the spectators repeatedly bowed to him. The ovation was prolonged, as if fans were trying to get him to come out for a curtain call. But Matsui, always modest, didn't leave the dugout.

''It's really a once in a lifetime opportunity,'' Alex Rodriguez said. ''Who knows when the Yankees are going to come back? It's a pretty special moment.''

A-Rod came a few feet short of a grand slam in the seventh. The AL MVP had another quiet night in his second game for New York, going 0-for-5 and dropping to 1-for-9 with no RBIs.

Derek Jeter finally got his first hit, an RBI single ahead of Rodriguez in the seventh, after going hitless in his first seven at-bats.

''I was in there saying, 'I'm the last one without a hit,''' he remembered.

Matsui had another chance to come up big in the seventh when he batted with the bases loaded, but he struck out against Trever Miller.

Posada, meanwhile, homered right-handed off Damian Moss in the fifth and left-handed against Jorge Sosa in the seventh. It was the fifth time he homered from both sides in the same game, the first since June 28, 2002, against the New York Mets.

He thought ahead to the 7,250-mile flight back to spring training in Florida. The Yankees were due to land at home just after midnight, ending a 38-hour day caused by the time difference.

''Now,'' Posada said, ''we can talk on the plane.''

Tampa Bay, coming off six straight last-place finishes, was pretty much overlooked during its five days in Japan.

''We came to play a team that was very popular here,'' Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella said. ''If we can play .500 against New York all year, I'll be very, very pleased.''

Brown, the 39-year-old right-hander acquired from Los Angeles in December, allowed six hits in seven innings, struck out five, walked none and got career win No. 198. Tom Gordon and Mariano Rivera finished with hitless relief.

Brown's turning point came in the fourth, when he gave up a leadoff single to Jose Cruz Jr. and went to a 3-0 count on Tino Martinez. Brown came back to strike out Martinez as Cruz was caught trying to steal second.

Last year, the Dodgers totaled just 17 runs in his nine losses.

''Just the first three runs take so much pressure off you,'' he said.

But the night belonged to Matsui, Japan's biggest baseball star.

When he received the helmet, the videoboard in the Big Egg showed his father in the stands. Many of Matsui's teammates watched.

The souvenir of the long trip could prove useful during the long season. When you play for the Yankees, where anything short of a World Series title is unacceptable, armor comes in handy.

Notes: Gonzalez gave up five runs and four hits in 4 2-3 innings. ... Giambi was 0-for-1 with three walks and a hit batter at DH. ''He said his knee was barking a little bit, those three games on turf,'' Torre said. ''He is going to be the key to figuring out what our lineup is going to look like, because if he is going to be able to play first, then yes, you have Bernie Williams, Kenny Lofton. But if he is not going to be able to play first base, then we've got to make a choice.'' ... Yankees RHP Paul Quantrill, who bruised his right knee when he twisted it on the turf Tuesday, thinks he can pitch next week. ''I think we feel a lot better about it than we thought last night,'' Torre said. ... Tampa Bay's Toby Hall was 5-for-6 in the two games.

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