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Friday, March 3, 2006

Unselfish Matsunaka putting it all on the line for 'Hinomaru' in WBC


Staff writer

Team Japan cleanup hitter Nobuhiko Matsunaka doesn't care how he swings the bat. Numbers are subordinate in the mind of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks star, especially in the World Baseball Classic.

Matsunaka wants WBC glory for his country and nothing more than that.

"I wear the 'Hinomaru' uniform to win," the 32-year-old slugger said after Japan's 2-0 win over the Yomiuri Giants on Wednesday at Tokyo Dome. "So it doesn't matter at all for me whether I make contact with the ball with the core of the bat or not. Results are everything."

It may sound surprising from a guy who in 2004 won Japan's first Triple Crown since 1985, notching a .358 batting average, 44 homers and 120 RBIs for the Pacific League stalwart Hawks.

Matsunaka was close to repeating the feat last season, winning the home run (46) and RBI (121) titles, but he fell seven points short of Pacific League batting champion and WBC teammate Kazuhiro Wada's .322 average to miss repeating.

In his eyes, however, numbers are just numbers. Now his uniform says Japan, and he said the indescribable feeling of playing for his country is a completely different animal than his regular job.

Although Matsunaka played in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, helping the Japanese won silver, and the 2000 Sydney Games, when Japan finished fourth, playing for the flag makes him tremble, he said.

"When you play in an international stage, you're playing for your country," said Matsunaka, who started his pro career with the Hawks in 1997. "So you get invisible power that you don't have in ordinary games."

Matsunaka's role on the WBC team seems larger than others players, especially because New York Yankees outfielder Hideki Matsui decided not to play in the tournament.

That left the powerful Matsunaka to hold potentially the most pivotal spot in the Japanese batting order.

Matsunaka thinks hitting in the cleanup spot on the national team is a great honor, and he is out to show that he can hold down the No. 4 spot just as well as "Godzilla" or anyone else.

"I'd like to live up to all the expectations and to put up results so everybody admits I should be in the spot," he said.

But don't forget his faith in the country.

What he meant by "living up to the expectations" doesn't necessarily mean that he wants to have monster numbers during the WBC. No matter what it takes to win, he will do it.

Japan manager Sadaharu Oh has built Team Japan to be an efficient machine of small ball, scoring runs with effort to advance runners by fully utilizing speed, sacrifices and whatever else it takes.

That doesn't necessarily leave room to emphasize extra-base hits, be they from Matsunaka or anyone else in Japan's lineup.

Matsunaka has power to be a slugger here in Japan, but he thinks Japan is no match for foreigners in terms of power, so he agrees with Oh's plan.

"For example, in a situation with a runner on third with no out, it is important to hit a grounder to second (to drive the runner home)," said Matsunaka, who amassed four RBIs in four warmup games in Fukuoka and Tokyo.

But only one of them was scored on an RBI hit.

Although he thinks a lot about bringing his teammates around to score, Matsunaka also tries to keep aggressive when it comes to getting on base.

Wednesday, he ran full-speed and legged out an infield single in the third inning, and he took a base in the fifth when Giants catcher Yoshinori Murata booted a ball.

Asked about his legs, which have been his weak point in the last few years, Matsunaka said, "Since I know that we would play on 'small ball,' I've been training so hard and it has paid off," he said. "The conditions of my legs are at their best now."

Matsunaka has another reason to play at his maximum strength.

Oh is his manager with the Hawks, and he has watched Matsunaka grow and become one of the best hitters in Japan.

Matsunaka said he doesn't want Oh to lose face with a disappointing WBC performance for Team Japan.

"I think my desire to make manager Oh a winner is bigger than other players," Matsunaka said.

Oh has a great faith in his apprentice, describing Matsunaka as "a dependable man who can hit at the cleanup spot without pressure among the national team players."



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