GLENDALE, Ariz. — In a Cactus League game at Camelback Ranch against the Dodgers, the Angels’ Hideki Matsui gets his first start in the outfield today since June 15, 2008 when he plays left and bats fourth.
Hindered by knee problems, Matsui did not play at all in the outfield for the Yankees last season, limiting him to designated-hitter duties only. He took full advantage of his three DH appearances in the World Series to claim the Series MVP award for his bashing of the Phillies for the Bronx Bombers.
“He could play in Fenway Park or anywhere,” Angels manager Mike Scioscia said when asked why he chose to play Matsui in the outfield in an unfamiliar park. “He needs to get his prep steps, how he feels during games and – even more important – the next day.
“If you’re going to play a full game, you’re talking about 150 prep steps if the pitchers throw 150 pitches. Not that he’s going to play a full game – I imagine it’ll be somewhere around four innings.”
Matsui has been making gradual progress in outfield drills, strengthening his knees while reacquainting himself with the terrain.
“There’s a team element in defense that needs to get pushed forward,” Scioscia said, alluding to the coordination Matsui and center fielder Torii Hunter need to develop. “With Matsui, it’s understanding range with Torii, where he needs to go. It’ll just take a little time for Hideki to get their range down.”
Signed to a one-year, $6 million free agent deal, Matsui expressed a desire to be given a chance to return to the outfield at least on a part-time basis.
The Angels’ plan is to give him a few starts in left a week, if possible, to provide DH opportunities for the other outfielders: Hunter, Juan Rivera and Bobby Abreu, along with Kendry Morales and Mike Napoli on occasion.
After missing a week and a half with a strain in his right elbow, shortstop Erick Aybar returned to the lineup on Monday against the Dodgers, leading off.
Scioscia said he did not play Brandon Wood on Sunday against the Mariners at home because he wanted his third baseman to sharpen his coordination with Aybar in a camp game.
“Left side defense is as important as anything you’re going to do,” Scioscia said. “The third baseman has to cover the hole. With Wood and Aybar, we worked on it yesterday. We also had Morales and [Howard] Kendrick on the right side stay back one day to work on it.”
This is the closest Scioscia has come to having his projected lineup together. Jeff Mathis was a last-minute insertion as DH when the Dodgers – using a split squad with a second game against the Brewers — notified the Angels they were freeing up the DH role.
With Matsui in left and Mathis occupying the DH spot, Juan Rivera was the only name missing from the lineup that is expected to be on the field when the Angels open the season on April 5 at home against Minnesota.
Freeing up the DH allowed Scioscia to switch back to Joe Saunders as his starter after deciding he’d go with Matt Palmer under National League rules.
Following Aybar in the lineup are right fielder Abreu, center fielder Hunter, Matsui, Morales, Kendrick, Napoli at catcher, Wood and Mathis.
They’ll be facing right-hander Carlos Monasterios, a Rule 5 pickup bidding to nail down the fifth spot in the Dodgers’ rotation. Lefty Clayton Kershaw is pitching in Phoenix against the Brewers. – Lyle Spencer