"He's a big part of what we're trying to get accomplished here, offensively and defensively," manager Clint Hurdle said of his second baseman. "When he gets on the bases, the speed dynamic's special. And then he goes ahead and barrels a ball up, hits it in the second deck. He's been slashing up there. He's been putting balls in play, hard, gapping some balls. He's doing a lot of good things. He's got some skills that we're getting to see. He's playing with more comfort, more confidence."
Confidence is not hard to come by with a .330 average (29-for-88) and 10 steals in his first 23 games of the season. Together with Willy Taveras, he has re-energized the top of the order, giving the heart of the lineup every opportunity to drive in runs. Lately, Matsui has taken the production into his own hands, plating two runs Wednesday night and lacing a big three-run triple in the eighth inning of Sunday's series clincher with the Reds, tying the game and scoring the winning run in the 10th.
"He stored it up," Hurdle joked of Matsui's 418-foot blast. "The guys were beating on his bat. They wanted to X-ray it."
Matsui is no stranger to the long ball, having amassed 150 round-trippers in Japan, including back-to-back seasons of 36 and 33 homers in the last two seasons before he came to the Majors. But he hasn't hit more than seven in his three seasons since then, including his last two injury-plagued seasons with the Mets and Rockies, when he totaled six homers in just 157 games combined.
Clearly comfortable in the Colorado clubhouse, Matsui is experiencing his best season to date, with all aspects of his game thriving. Taking over the full-time job at second after Jamey Carroll's cream-of-the-crop quality performance in 2006, when he led all National League second baseman with a .995 fielding percentage, Matsui hasn't missed a step, handling 102 chances without an error this season.
"He's a good second baseman," Hurdle said. "Is he Gold Glove caliber? Not many are. He's a good second baseman. He has tremendous range to his left. He's got a strong enough arm. He's good on slow rollers. His first-step quickness is very good. A lot of those balls up the middle, you see him rounding them off, getting in front of them. I like him defensively."
The Rockies are 10-5 since Matsui returned from a trip to the disabled list with lower back spasms, giving his teammates in the dugout -- and his fans in the second deck -- an abundance of reasons to enjoy everything he has to offer.
Ramirez demoted: With Josh Fogg's return from the DL Thursday, reliever Ramon Ramirez was optioned to Triple-A Colorado Springs. Ramirez had an excellent April, yielding no runs in seven appearances before an elbow strain sidelined him from April 17 through May 17.
Upon his return from the DL, Ramirez posted an 18.90 ERA in eight appearances.
"We need to get Ramon down there and get right," Hurdle said. "It's a long season, and we definitely can use him back here, but he needs to get down there and pitch consistently with the fastball command that he's shown, the downhill plane, and just try and get some confidence back."
Buchholz back in the bullpen: Taylor Buchholz earned the win in relief Wednesday night, his first appearance out of the bullpen in over a month. He joined the rotation when Rodrigo Lopez went on the DL in late April and returned to a relief role in anticipation of Fogg's activation in time for Thursday's start, which Buchholz had been scheduled to make.
Buchholz pitched a one-two-three seventh inning, holding a tie score until the Rockies four-run frame at the bottom of the inning.
"Awful nice effort from Buch," Hurdle said. "We told him we feel he's versatile. We feel he's got a nice power arm. This is where we need him right now. He came in, threw strikes, spun the ball extremely well. That's just another confidence boost."
Buchholz can expect to pitch in the kinds of situations that Ramirez handled, including late-inning setup work with Manny Corpas the top choice in the eighth and Brian Fuentes closing out games in the ninth.
"He'll go into that mix," Hurdle said. "We've got [Jorge] Julio, who's shown some signs, with the exception of last night he had three solid outings in a row. So we've got some options out there. But I don't have any hesitations or reservations about using Taylor right now in the role that Ramon had."
No. 1 with a bullet: Matt Holliday's career-high 14-game hitting streak entering Thursday propelled him to the top of the charts with a league-best .351 average. Todd Helton is third in the NL at .330, and with Taveras reaching the plate-appearance plateau to qualify for league-leader status Wednesday night, he secured the No. 7 spot at .321.
On tap: The Rockies return to Interleague Play Friday, opening a stretch of 15 consecutive games against American League teams. Southpaw Jeff Francis (5-4, 3.70 ERA) starts the series in Baltimore, taking on right-handed veteran Steve Trachsel (4-4, 3.89 ERA) at 5:05 p.m. MT.