ST. PETERSBURG After a month in the making, Matsui Mania descended upon Tropicana Field with one Godzilla-worthy wallop.
Veteran slugger Hideki Matsui may have taken his time moving up the ranks of the Tampa Bay Rays' minor leagues, accompanied each step of the way by a throng of some 50 Japanese media members.
But he wasted absolutely no time Tuesday night endearing himself to Rays fans and his new team, while truly giving the traveling Japanese press corps something to write home about.
Thirteen hours ahead of Eastern Time, baseball lovers throughout the island nation watched live cut-ins on their TV sets every time Matsui stepped to the plate linked halfway across the world to cheering Rays fans inside the Trop. And they all had something to celebrate in the fourth inning when the 37-year-old Japanese baseball icon and former New York Yankees World Series MVP belted the first pitch of his second at-bat as a Ray high over the right-field wall for a two-run homer and 2-0 lead.
The only thing missing from his Matsui's dramatic debut was Tampa Bay a win.
The high-powered Chicago White Sox made sure of that by roughing up ace James Shields in a five-run sixth inning fueled by five consecutive hits and made off with a 7-2 victory before a crowd of 13,735.
It was the Rays' second straight loss to Sox, who finish the three-game series with a 1:10 p.m. contest Wednesday. And it dropped the Tampa Bay to 29-21 in the AL East. One consolation was that the Baltimore Orioles also lost Tuesday, 8-6 to Toronto, to remain tied for the division lead.
The other consolation: Matsui. After the contest, he received the full hero treatment in the clubhouse, where players staged their "post-game dance party" complete with a disco light, flashing strobe, lots of yelling and dancing and the customary lighting of the neon Captain Morgan sign by the man of the hour.
"I was welcomed in a way that I have never experienced in my life before let's put it that way," he said through interpreter Roger Kahlon.
Added Rays manager Joe Maddon: "The boys planned a nice reception for him and I think he enjoyed it himself. (We're) just trying to get him accustomed to the cultural shift that he's going to experience by playing here."
The man nicknamed Godzilla seemed to savor it, as well as the applause and cheers he received at the plate and standing in left field. Maddon didn't decide on whether to start Matsui until around 4 p.m., when he arrived at the ballpark after a delayed flight from Indianapolis following his call-up from Triple-A Durham.
Maddon wanted to make sure Matsui, who'll turn 38 on June 12, felt good enough to play right away. The 6-2, 210-pounder assured him that he did and then proved it. His first at-bat in the second inning was a towering shot to left field that sent a momentary stir through the stadium before it was caught by Dayan Viciedo.
Then came his tour de force. With Matt Joyce aboard with a walk, Matsui came up with two outs and immediately hammered the 174th homer of his major league career (506th including his Japanese homers) to right off Philip Humber.
It turns out Matsui has knack for making a grand entrance. He's homered in three of his four major league home debuts: 2003 with the Yankees, 2010 with the Angels and now 2012 with the Rays. And for the record, he's homered in three of his last four games at the Trop now.
"It was nice to hit the home run," he said. "We lost the game but just from a personal standpoint, it's nice to be able to hit my first home run (with the Rays) in that moment. I think overall everything was pretty good from my standpoint. Physically, I feel fine. I just hope I can continue to keep building from here."
Matsui grounded out in the sixth and ninth innings, but Maddon liked what he saw from a first outing.
"Outstanding," he said. "He looked really good. I thought he had good swings all night. Good at bats. He moved well I wanted to watch him run. I looks like he moved well to first base. He had a great first game for us."
The White Sox simply proved to be too much, now batting ,518 (27-for-52) with runners in scoring position over the last five games. They improved to 28-22 and moved ahead of Cleveland in the AL Central. In addition, Humber picked up his first victory since throwing perfect game on April 21 at Seattle. He went seven innings with five hits and five strikeouts, while Shields left after six innings having given up 10 hits and five earned runs with an errant pickoff attempt leading to a sixth.
"For the most part I felt really good," he said. "I really felt dominant all the way until that last inning."
Shields, now 6-3 with a 3.95 ERA, did enjoy one thing: seeing Matsui's homer.
"It's definitely good he's on our team now," he said.
Long before game-time, there was a distinct buzz over the news that the Rays were calling up Matsui after his whirlwind tour with the Single-A Charlotte Stone Crabs, Double-A Montgomery Biscuits and the Triple-A Bulls.
In the Rays clubhouse, players welcomed the news of his arrival, especially given the wave of injuries that have beset the team all season.
"He's always kind of beat up on us a little bit, so we're glad to have him," said centerfielder B.J. Upton. "He's another veteran around the clubhouse and he knows what it takes to win championships and from what I hear, he's a really good guy."
Rightfielder and second baseman Ben Zobrist echoed the sentiment.
"He's a great, experienced player and he's going to add a lot to our club," Zobrist said. "If he can come in and help us out, that's what we're looking for right now. We've got a lot of guys who've been injured and we need help. And he's definitely got a lot of experience to help us with."
When Maddon convened his usual pre-game press briefing by the Tampa Bay dugout, he faced an unusually large press contingent comprised of U.S. and Japanese reporters reminiscent of the 2008 World Series run when Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura attracted his own traveling media entourage.
"I think he'll fit in really well," Maddon said. "I don't really know him personally. I've been in his company a couple of times. But everybody who's been around him speaks of what a tremendous professional he is."
As the media awaited his grand entrance, vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman fielded more questions for starters, about the timing of Matsui's promotion from Durham. "I think the biggest thing with Hideki is he knows himself a lot better than we do," Friedman said. "With a lot of our veteran players in spring training, they have a really good feel for when they're ready and when they're not from a timing standpoint. And so we were in communication with him as far as how he felt. Typically, he likes to get between 50-60 at bats in spring training, and essentially his minor league stint was his spring training."
Though Matsui didn't exactly tear it up in his minor league stint including 8-for-47 for .170 at Durham Friedman said the Rays were more concerned about him feeling good at the plate. And he expressed excitement over the assets he brings.
"He's a tremendous clubhouse guy," he said. "He's a professional hitter. He works a really good at bat. His bat-to-ball skills are elite. And for our young guys to watch him and the way he goes about it, both in the batter's box and off the field, I think will only help."
It took a good hour for Matsui to arrive through the tunnel into the Tampa Bay dugout he wanted to remain in the clubhouse until Rays players finished their on-field drills to have a chance to greet them. Finally, he emerged as video cameras rolled and reporters instantly crowded around him in front of the dugout.
"I'm happy that I received the call-up and I'm just going to work hard to help the team win," he said through Kahlon.
He spoke about the positive experience he had in the minors and how he expects to fit in with the Rays' clubhouse and even cracked a joke when asked if he missed not getting his old No. 55 jersey number. That's worn by rookie pitcher Matt Moore, so Matsui got No. 35.
"It was the number that was available," he said, "and it was nice to be able to keep one 5."
Another number of note emerged Tuesday night: 11. That's how many home runs Matsui has now hit at Tropicana Field in 62 career games there. The Rays are just glad his latest one counted for them.