Matsui one hit away from history

Matsui one hit away from history

MIAMI -- Just the thought of it makes Kazuo Matsui's eyes light up. He has a hard time coming to the realization that he will soon slip on the green sport coat that signifies membership in the Meikyukai, an exclusive fraternity of Japan's greatest baseball players.

Matsui, in his second season as the Astros' starting second baseman, put himself on the threshold of Japanese baseball greatness when he went 3-for-4 with two doubles in Wednesday's 14-6 win over the Marlins.

He enters Thursday's series finale needing just one hit to reach 2,000 combined between the U.S. Major Leagues and Japan, an accomplishment that means automatic qualification for the Meikyukai and a place among Japan's baseball legends.

"I still cannot imagine that it's going to be 2,000," Matsui said on Wednesday night. "I got three hits today, and it was big."

There are more than 50 players in the club, but Matsui would be only the fourth Japanese Major Leaguer to do it, joining Hideo Nomo, Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki. Players are eligible for induction if they reach 2,000 hits, 200 wins or 250 saves in Japan or the U.S., or combined.

"I still cannot believe that I'm going to get the jacket," Matsui said. "I've seen the jacket before on TV when somebody was wearing it. I still cannot believe I'm the one who's going to wear it."

His quest for 2,000 hits is apparently making big news in Japan.

More than two dozen Japanese reporters and photographers have joined the Astros in Miami for their four-game series against the Marlins to track Matsui's every move. They plan to stay with him until he reaches the mark, even if it means traveling to Milwaukee for this weekend's series with the Brewers.

"There is so much Japanese media, and not to think about the 2,000th hit, it's difficult to do that," Matsui said. "Of course I think about it."

Osamu Higashio's, Matsui's manager when he began his eight-year career with the Seibu Lions in 1995 and a 251-game winner in Japan as a pitcher, is also in Miami. He will present Matsui with the jacket on the field following the game in which he reaches 2,000.

"When I started my professional career, I couldn't imagine this number, 2,000 hits," Matsui said. "At the same time, 2,000 hits is not the end. After that I just have to take it day by day."

Hideki Okuda, a Los Angeles-based reporter for Sports Nippon Newspaper, said that the significance of gaining entrance into the Meikyukai can't be understated. In some ways, he said, reaching 2,000 hits is considered the Japanese equivalent of 3,000 hits in the Majors, because the Japanese season is only 140 games, and it used to be 135.

"It's a great record," Okuda said. "Unfortunately, [Matsui] has been hurt many times since he's been in the United States, so he's not satisfied with what he did in the United States. He was a very good and consistent player when he played in Japan. Each year he produced about 175 base hits and a lot of stolen bases.

"Still, it's a great accomplishment, because he's had to make adjustments to a lot of different things."

Even Astros manager Cecil Cooper, who this year has seen three of his players reach 300 career homers, as well as Ivan Rodriguez setting the all-time record for games caught, has gotten caught up in Kazmania.

"It's a huge deal, and I hope he gets it," Cooper said. "We need Kaz to be part of our offense, and he has. He's had his left-handed swing going pretty good. It's a special deal for him and his country, and I'm tickled to be a part of it."

Matsui, a native of Osaka, was considered a five-tool player and was voted as the best shortstop in the history of Japanese baseball. He was a seven-time All-Star in Japan and won four Gold Gloves before he was granted free agency and came to the U.S.

His signing with the New York Mets in 2004 was met with much anticipation, but the bright lights of the big city -- as well as Major League pitching -- proved to be tough to handle.

After hitting .305 with 33 homers and 84 RBIs in his final season for Seibu, in 2003, Matsui hit .272 with seven homers and 44 RBIs for the Mets in 2004. He played in only 87 games in 2005 because of injury and was dealt to Colorado midway through the next season.

Matsui had perhaps his best Major League season in 2007, when he hit .288 and stole 32 bases in 104 games to help the Rockies reach the World Series. The Astros rewarded him with a three-year, $16.5 million contract prior to the 2008 season, but he has been largely a disappointment in Houston.

"Overall, he couldn't meet the expectations we had," Okuda said. "But he knows that, too. That's why he still continues to try to ... be a better player every day. He's really worked hard."

Matsui played in only 96 games in his first year with the Astros and was on the disabled list three times. He packs ice on his knees, his shoulders and his back following each game, which makes it hard to believe that he was considered one of the game's iron men in Japan, playing in 1,143 consecutive games from 1997 to 2003.

Matsui enters Thursday's action hitting .251 with five homers, 29 RBIs and 12 steals in 87 games -- 27 games shy of his Major League high of 114 games played in 2004 with the Mets. But the only milestone he is focusing on now is the one that will get him into the Meikyukai.

"I'm having the greatest experience," he said. "When I get hurt, that is disappointing. But I'm glad I could be able to be a free agent in Japan, and right now I'm having the greatest experience."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.