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Matsunaka remains a potent weapon for Hawks

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

A lot of baseball fans, particularly Fukuoka Softbank Hawks supporters, can probably recall how good Nobuhiko Matsunaka was during his prime in the early 2000s.

And when they look at him now, they probably think the 37-year-old slugger is done.

They’re not necessarily wrong. Matsunaka’s been plagued by a series of injuries, especially bad knees, that have limited his base-running and fielding in recent years.

But sometimes people forget this: A baseball player can still make a living if he can swing the bat.

In Friday’s Game 2 of the Pacific League Climax Series final stage, Matsunaka swung his bat just once. But this brief appearance proved that he is still a hell of a batter.

Matsunaka bashed the first pitch from Seibu reliever Kazuhisa Makita for a win-securing grand slam in the eighth inning. The Hawks downed the Lions 7-2 to put themselves one win away from clinching their first Japan Series berth in eighth years. Matsunaka and his teammates finished off the Lions on Saturday.

“I think our manager and coaches thought I wouldn’t make it in time for the Climax Series,” said Matsunaka, who broke a bone in his right knee when he was hit by a pitch in mid-September, after the game.

The left-handed hitter played in 88 games, hitting .308 with 12 homers and 36 RBIs this season.

“The team won the pennant, but I couldn’t be there with it. So to be quite honest, I was so vexed watching it on TV,” Matsunaka said. “I wanted to be back in time for the Climax Series and make some presence in it.”

Hawks manager Koji Akiyama bluntly responded that it doesn’t matter how the team did in the past but how well it does now is the most important thing this year, when he was told that Softbank had no home runs in last year’s Climax Series.

But Matsunaka feels responsible for the Hawks’ miserable outcomes in past postseasons. Despite making six of the last seven postseasons, the Hawks and Matsunaka always underperformed once they entered the playoffs and never reached the Japan Series.

“It’s me who’s put the team and its fans in this situation,” said Matsunaka, who accepted a salary cut of ¥200 million before the 2011 season. “I created the pressure for them.”

Yet Matsunaka put his head up and the grand slam was only the beginning of his postseason revenge.

“I guess I could vent some of the frustration (with the homer),” the two-time MVP said.

Softbank’s season isn’t finished and Matsunaka has another series, the grand stage, to make an impact.