Kaz paces Astros' new-look offense

Kaz paces Astros' new-look offense

HOUSTON -- When last season ended, the Astros' front office staff gathered to map out a general game plan for 2008. Improving the offense was a priority, as was adding speed to a largely heavy-footed lineup that did very little on the basepaths throughout the losing campaign.

Among the players targeted by general manager Ed Wade was second baseman Kazuo Matsui, a prototypcial No. 2 hitter with exceptional speed and above-average range.

Matsui started his season two weeks late because of health issues, but he appears to have made up for lost time. In 18 games since he was activated from the disabled list, Matsui had a .275 average, five doubles, 10 RBIs and six stolen bases. With Matsui in the lineup, the Astros are 12-6.

Matsui is one of a handful of Astros players showing exceptional initiative on the basepaths this year. Despite a two-week drought that ended when he swiped second in the first inning Thursday, Michael Bourn leads the team with 14 stolen bases, followed by Matsui and Lance Berkman, both of whom have six.

Matsui's achievements in particular were a hot topic before Thursday's game, mainly because of his astute baserunning that led to the Astros' 4-3 win on Wednesday. Matsui, who had already recorded two steals on the night, scampered to third with one out in the ninth on a wild pitch that trickled only a few feet from the catcher behind the plate. He then scored on Carlos Lee's hit to shallow center.

"He's energized us," manager Cecil Cooper said. "Kaz is a great baserunner and a good player. It seems like he's always on base. I can't wait to see him steal those bases because it's almost no contest. He reads it really well."

Wade categorized Matsui as an "instinctive" baserunner.

"You can tell he anticipates certain things happening," Wade said. "You don't get to third base last night in the [ninth] inning unless you're anticipating a wild pitch or a ball in the dirt. You can tell players that until the cows come home and you'll still see guys get stuck because they weren't anticipating."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.