PEORIA, Ariz. -- Yu Darvish brought a mix of Strasburg-mania and Linsanity to the Cactus League in his spring debut with the Texas Rangers Wednesday. The crowd of 2,910 might have been oblivious to the long-term ramifications, but you didn't need a Peoria Chamber of Commerce brochure to know that something special was taking place.
A talented young pitcher with widespread cultural appeal has crossed the threshold from stretching on the back fields and throwing in the bullpen to hauling out his Grade-A stuff in games. Darvish is good, he knows it, and the hitters who have yet to face him here or watch him in the 2009 World Baseball Classic are about to get a first-hand glimpse of his skill set.
Now that the Ryan Braun-Dino Laurenzi Jr. spat has faded from the headlines, Albert Pujols has settled into the middle of the Angels lineup, Manny Ramirez and Yoenis Cespedes have taken their first round of batting practice together at Oakland's camp and Miguel Cabrera and Hanley Ramirez have made their 2012 debuts at third base, Darvish just might be the most compelling story of spring training.
Does he have the ability to justify the $111 million the Rangers invested in him and achieve a level of stardom beyond what Hideo Nomo, Daisuke Matsuzaka and the other prominent Japanese pitchers before him achieved? Only time and innings will tell.
Can Darvish find the right balance between satisfying the media and a rabid fan base and wrapping himself in the protective cocoon he'll need to focus on the business at hand? Good luck with that.
"People are saying, 'He could be the best pitcher ever from Japan,'" said San Diego second baseman Orlando Hudson. "He's got pressure from Japan. Pressure from the States. Pressure from the writers. ESPN. Every start, eyes on him. He'll give up one home run and it's going to be like, 'What's going on?' The first time he goes three innings, it will be like, 'What happened?'
"That's a lot of pressure. Does he have the potential to live up to it? Oh yeah. Definitely. But he's got a lot to deal with. He's a bigger man than me."
After Darvish threw two shutout innings in a 6-2 victory over the Padres, he was hustled off to a makeshift news conference to assess his performance. Enough flash bulbs popped to melt the ice bag on his right shoulder. Not long afterward, Texas pitching coach Mike Maddux was running through the inventory of pitches in Darvish's repertoire when he received an important news flash: The bus back to Surprise was about to pull out of the lot, and Maddux knew he had to hustle if he didn't want to cab it back to the park.
Statistically speaking, Darvish's debut was a rousing success. He threw 26 of his 36 pitches for strikes, struck out three and didn't walk a man, and allowed two doubles in two shutout innings. He maxed out on the radar gun with three 95 mph fastballs in the first inning. His slowest pitch, a 67 mph curveball to Will Venable to start the second inning, was straight out of the Eric Gagne playbook.
From the scouting, poise and athleticism angles, the reviews were very good. Darvish showed impressive agility while turning a James Darnell comebacker into a forceout at home plate and chewed up ground in a hurry while springing off the mound to cover first base. He also showed a capacity for adjusting on the fly. After throwing in the bullpen before the game and deciding his changeup wasn't up to his personal standards, he junked the pitch and went exclusively with his split-finger fastball.
"The thing I like is how he commands his secondary stuff," said a National League scout who was in attendance. "The splitter is very good as a put-away pitch, and he can throw his slider and his curveball when he's behind in the count. And you can't just sit on anything else, because he throws 95."
Darvish can be inventive and unpredictable when the mood strikes. He told Maddux before the game that he would pitch the entire game from the stretch, rather than the full windup, ostensibly because he was having a hard time commanding his stuff from the windup. He stayed true to that vow, from the first pitch through the 36th.
At the moment, Darvish's biggest challenge is deciding how much of his personality he wants to reveal. He never smiles and is extremely guarded in interviews, and when everything is funneled through an interpreter, it's inevitable that minor misunderstandings will mushroom into something bigger. Darvish is inherently confident, and there might come a point when his self-assuredness comes across as cockiness or aloofness.
At one point Wednesday, Darvish was asked about a fly ball that Venable hit 420 feet off the batter's eye above the center-field fence for a double. Darvish cited the wind and the dry air in Peoria as factors, and opined that the ball wasn't hit as well as it appeared. That came as news to Venable, a well-mannered Princeton grad who seemed taken aback by the observation.
"Maybe his perception of reality isn't as right-on as well no comment," Venable said.
For what it's worth, the NL scout who was at the game said the ball was, indeed, well-struck.
"That pitch was belt-high extended, and Venable crushed it,'' the scout said. "It wasn't the wind."
At the end of the day, the San Diego hitters still lined up to praise Darvish. Padres catcher John Baker, who saw five different pitches in a five-pitch at-bat in the second inning before striking out, marveled at Darvish's ability to command such a wide range of stuff on March 7.
"I saw a sinker, a cutter, a curveball, a four-seam fastball and a split," Baker said. "For him to be able to come in and command all those pitches this early is pretty impressive. We're not too far removed from the Super Bowl."
Not to mention that Darvish is 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, and more evocative of the classic American fireballers than what major leaguers have seen from Japan.
"You see his velocity, and you see all his pitches," Baker said. "Is it better than anything I've ever seen in the big leagues? No. I played with Josh Johnson for four years in Florida, and it's tough to measure up to somebody like that. But is he a major league pitcher? Yeah, absolutely. And is he going to be a front-of-the-rotation starter? Yeah, I could see that too."
Two spring trainings innings into his big league tenure, Darvish is already the closest thing out there to "appointment baseball." It's early yet, but the Rangers have every reason to believe they got what they paid for.