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As hard as it is to imagine a Japanese ballplayer batting in the heart of the order for the New York Yankees, Jason Giambi won’t second-guess Hideki Matsui’s potential.

And, for those who do, he says it’s nonsense.

In an exclusive interview with The Japan Times before Game 6 of the MLB All-Star tour of Japan, Giambi, the one-time American League MVP who led the Yanks with 41 home runs and 122 RBIs mostly from the No. 3 spot this past season, said the Yomiuri Giants slugger can bat “anywhere between No. 3-5” if he decides to don the pinstripes next season.

Giambi adds that “Godzilla” has created more than enough noise in Japan, which has become “a new avenue” for Major League Baseball scouts and owners searching for the next Ichiro.

Giambi, who just finished his first season with the Yankees after spending seven seasons with the Oakland Athletics, went 7-for-23 (.304) in his second tour of Japan.

In the interview, Giambi spoke of Matsui, the fans in Japan and how he overcame the early struggles in his first season with the Yankees.

Japan Times: At the opening press conference of this trip, which was before you saw Matsui bat, you went on to praise him and said you’d welcome him as a teammate. Now that you’ve seen him at the plate, are you surprised at the hype around him during this series?

Giambi: No, he’s a great player. He’s a phenomenal player who has accomplished some incredible feats in Japan. Of course he’s getting a lot of attention right now because he’s talking about coming over to the U.S. and playing baseball. To these people out here, that’s big. Ichiro came over and he’s played well. They’re hoping if he does go over, he’ll play well. So he definitely deserves a lot of the hype he’s getting because of the things he’s accomplished here.

If Matsui signs with the Yankees, where would you like to see him bat in the lineup?

The biggest thing for him is you’d want him to feel as comfortable as he could coming over. This would be a brand new experience for him. I would say he can hit anywhere between No. 3 to No. 5, depending on the lineup and who’s pitching and how fast he adjusts, because he’s definitely going to have his adjustment period. It’s one thing when Ichiro had come over, he always had his speed and he could put the ball in play and run. But the biggest thing Matsui has in his adjustment process is driving the ball, getting used to the pitchers. . . . So he’s going to have a little different learning curve than Ichiro, but in his own right, he’s a great hitter. He takes great at-bats. A guy doesn’t hit 50 home runs and hit .330 if he’s not a great hitter.

A lot has been said about the different ball used in MLB and Japan. Considering Matsui didn’t have a home run in the series, would that be a significant difference in comparing what he has done in his 10 years in Japan and the potential he has in North America?

Yeah, but that could be just him pressing to try and hit a home run. In his own country, he doesn’t have anything to prove. Everybody knows he’s a great player. But this could be his last series in Japan, so he’s trying to hit home runs. Everyone’s watched him take great batting practices, great power. Maybe he’s just trying too hard to hit a home run. And, of course, the American pitchers know who he is. It’s not like they’re throwing it down the middle and saying, ‘Go deep.’ He’s definitely at a disadvantage right now. I think he’s trying to hit home runs in his last series in Japan and trying to show that he can play. But he’s a great player.

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner is entering into this working agreement with the Yomiuri Giants and going after someone like Matsui, who has done nothing yet in the majors. On the other hand, he’s got players on the bubble like Raul Mondesi, Rondell White and free-agent Roger Clemens. Some in New York are saying Steinbrenner is spending his money in the wrong places at the wrong time. What’s your take on that?

I think the thing that he sees is maybe the talent. (Matsui) hasn’t played, but everybody sees the talent. Definitely, it’s an opportunity to get a ballplayer that he looks at and seems like Ichiro — just comes out and is unbelievable. And all of a sudden, there’s another great player on the team. It’s so tough right now to keep getting great players in the big leagues. Guys get locked down on other teams. It’s tough. I think this is a new avenue for (Steinbrenner) to find great players. And Matsui, what he’s accomplished here, you kind of try and judge what Ichiro has done (in Japan) and you’re looking at Matsui and saying, ‘Well, you hope he comes over and does the same thing Ichiro does.’ You’ll have another phenomenal player and it definitely adds another dimension to our team.

Speaking of new avenues, have you seen or heard of other potential big leaguers in Japan?

I think (Norihiro) Nakamura’s a great player. (Kazuo) “Little” Matsui, he’s a phenomenal player. The kid who pitched the first night (Yomiuri’s Koji Uehara), very good. Let’s see, who else jumps out at me . . . . I heard there’s another kid who’s got a groin injury (Seibu Lions pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka) but is supposed to be as good as Uehara.

Compared to four years ago, do you feel like the gap between the two countries’ level of baseball has shrunk?

Yeah, they’re a lot better. I mean, they were great ballplayers before, but it seems like now they’re hitting with more power. You look up on the board, and every guy up there’s got 40 homers, hitting .300. I think every year they get better and better, but that just shows how hard they work. We come over here, we leave an impression. So they want to become that ballplayer, and so they get bigger and stronger, too. That’s the biggest thing I’ve noticed coming here. The ballplayers are a little bit bigger and stronger than before.

You just spent your first year with the team everyone dreams of playing for after a huge free-agent deal. And you struggled for the first months of the season. How did you deal with the pressure and what did you have to lean on during those hard times?

I decided to lean back on confidence. I knew that I was a good player. I’d won an MVP before and accomplished some great things in the majors. I knew there was going to be a little bit of pressure I was going to put on myself. I signed a big contract and, going to New York, I wanted to play well. You know, kind of like Matsui, trying to hit 40 homers in one game! But once I finally started to say, ‘Let’s get back to taking good at-bats, hitting the ball hard. Let’s get the average back to .300 and your home runs will come.’ It all kind of took off after I just finally started to relax and not press.

Do you ever get sick of the fans screaming your name and shouting wherever you go?

No! You know the fun part is playing in front of these fans. They love it. That’s the exciting part. It’s a little different environment than we’re used to in the States. In the U.S., it’s your job. This is more of a fun time for us. We want to play well, but it’s also more fun where we go out and you’re spreading the good will of baseball and you get to see the fans. I mean the fans here, they give Ichiro a standing ovation! He left the country to play in the United States. I mean, when I left the Oakland A’s, I got booed like crazy my first time back! (laughs) So, you know, it’s a little bit different. It’s fun for us to come out and play in front of these fans because they’re so enthusiastic about the game.

What’s your impression of Japan, and how’s the nightlife?

It’s been great, trust me. We’ve been to Roppongi. In every city we’ve gone to, we’ve tried to go out and just experience, you know, the people and the culture. Everybody’s been so nice and gracious, it’s been a lot of fun.

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