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Eagles would be wise to bring Matsui along slowly

by Jason Coskrey

Yuki Matsui is going to make his debut for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles during the team’s first home series of the season this week, and he’d pretty much have to toss a shutout to match the hype.

No one knows how he’ll do, and other than the novelty of it being his debut, it really doesn’t matter, but expectations for the 18-year-old lefty are already through the roof.

The Eagles would be wise to try and keep things in perspective and not give Matsui too much to deal with too soon.

That’s not always easy in Japan, where the ballad of the hotshot teenage rookie pitcher — especially one for whom a strong showing at the National High School Baseball Championship is still fresh in the minds of many — is highly romanticized.

Performing feats of greatness in the middle of a hot Kansai summer on Koshien Stadium’s venerated all-dirt infield has been the fast-track to stardom for decades, especially for pitchers.

In just the last several years or so, Masahiro Tanaka, Yuki Saito and Shintaro Fujinami went through the meat grinder and came out the other side earmarked for fame and fortune.

Some have been able to handle the pressure of living up to that standard, and some haven’t.

While Matsui never tasted ultimate victory in the tournament, he made his name on the back of a whirlwind performance during the 2012 edition.

He struck out 22 in Toko Gakuen’s opening game and followed that with 19 punch-outs in the second round. He eventually led his team into the quarterfinals and went down swinging, striking out 15 more in a losing effort.

This season, with Fujinami and two-way phenom Shohei Otani having come out the previous year, Matsui was the darling of the 2013 draft.

Five teams selected him with their first pick, and Eagles president Yozo Tachibana pulled the lucky ticket during the draft lottery.

Rakuten manager Senichi Hoshino got the hype train going that night, comparing Matsui’s mentality on the mound to that of Tanaka and Takahiro Norimoto, who was great for Rakuten last season and was named the 2013 Pacific League Rookie of the Year.

That Matsui’s arrival coincides with Tanaka’s departure to the major leagues only amplifies the pressure on him.

Even though Norimoto, who notched a complete-game victory on Opening Night, is the obvious candidate to try to fill Tanaka’s shoes, Matsui dominated the spring headlines.

Though not all of the hype around Matsui has been wishful thinking. The lefty had a great showing during the spring, allowing two runs and striking out 16 in 16 innings, but the games count from here on out.

He isn’t Tanaka, and the Eagles would do well to not treat him like Tanaka.

The Eagles had a bad habit of sending Tanaka to the mound for photo-op outings a handful of times last season.

With Matsui, they should watch his pitch counts and game situations and try and alleviate as much of the pressure on him as possible.

Rakuten could actually take a page out of the New York Yankees’ playbook.

The Yankees gave Tanaka a seven-year, $155 million contract and almost from the time the deal became official, New York GM Brian Cashman launched a quasi-public relations campaign aimed at playing down expectations, even telling the New York Daily News’ Anthony McCarron the team looked at Tanaka as a “solid, potential No. 3 starter in the big leagues.”

No one gives that type of money to a guy with a No. 3 ceiling. Cashman just wanted to lessen some of the pressure Tanaka would feel in his first year in the majors.

Similarly, the Eagles probably expect Matsui to be great one day, and taking it with him while keeping expectations tempered can help that become a reality.