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Darvish's devilish debut

Rangers' big acquisition from Japan dazzling in 1st appearance

Phil Rogers

On Baseball

8:27 PM CST, March 7, 2012

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PEORIA, Ariz. — The wind howled when Yu Darvish walked from the third-base dugout to the pitcher's mound, blowing almost directly to the center-field wall.

He had picked a hitter's day to make his spring training debut, or so it seemed to almost everyone at the Peoria Sports Complex except Darvish. He might as well have been Phil Niekro or Charlie Hough as he warmed up, thinking how he could use the 30-mph headwind as just another resource.

"When that happens, the ball tends to move pretty well,'' Darvish said later.

He wasn't winking as he spoke, but he might as well have been.

When the Rangers committed $107.7 million to import Japan's best pitcher, they were counting as much on his resourcefulness as his athletic gifts, of which there are many. He has only two innings in the Cactus League book but you would think club president Nolan Ryan and general manager Jon Daniels are feeling very good about having the 25-year-old for at least the next six seasons.

Working from the stretch his entire stint, Darvish dropped hints about his enormous potential during two scoreless innings against the Padres. He did not reveal much of himself in an controlled interview with about 150 media members afterward, which did not come as a surprise to those from Japan.

Darvish is used to being in control of everything he touches, including his image. A national hero since his teenage years, he was 93-38 with a 1.99 ERA in seven seasons for the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, and it's clear he expects that dominance to cross the Pacific Ocean with him.

"This guy really, really wants to excel,'' Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "That's refreshing. He comes here having had a lot of success, and he's starting from square one here. He has high expectations for himself. We just expect him to keep us in the game.''

Forgive Maddux for that fib. The expectations for Darvish go beyond quality starts.

Padres general manager Josh Byrnes referenced a recent conversation with former Indians pitching coach Mike Brown, who had served as a pitching coach in Japan. Brown told Byrnes that he had seen a lot of talented teenage pitchers, including the likes of Brien Taylor, Bartolo Colon, Jaret Wright and CC Sabathia, but that he never had seen a better prospect than Darvish.

The Rangers expect Darvish will have some ups and downs but their intense scouting of him in Japan throughout the 2011 season convinced them that his ceiling is at the same level as the best pitchers in the big leagues, the guys like Justin Verlander, Tim Lincecum, C.C. Sabathia and Clayton Kershaw.

"You never know until he gets out there,'' Padres right fielder Will Venable said. "His stuff is right there with (the best pitchers). … I only saw five pitches, so I don't know. But he was good.''

After watching Darvish in bullpen sessions and an intersquad game, Rangers manager Ron Washington wanted the 6-foot-5 newcomer to show he could throw quality strikes with his fastball. Darvish did that, and a lot more, as he worked toward a regular-season debut likely to come April 8 against the White Sox.

He needed 36 pitches to get through two innings, but 26 of them were strikes, including eight swing-and-misses. He gave up two doubles — one on an Orlando Hudson hustle play, the other on Venable's towering drive — but offset them with three strikeouts (Cameron Maybin on a 2-2 split-finger, Carlos Quentin on a 2-2 slow curve and John Baker on a 1-2 splitter) as he mixed an unusually broad arsenal of secondary pitches with 94- and 95-mph fastballs.

Impressively, Darvish also showed off "some vertical range,'' as Maddux put it. That's a reference to him leaping high into the air to spear a one-hopper from third baseman James Darnell that turned into an out when Venable was stopped trying to score from third.

Darvish smiled when a reporter asked about his fielding.

"We've been working on that,'' he said, "and I think it went very well.''

Even in his formal interview, Darvish seemed to be toying with the big leaguers he soon will be facing for real. He said he seemingly decides on a whim whether to work from a windup or the stretch when the bases are empty — Maddux said he had watched film from one 2011 start when he worked exclusively from the stretch — and, while being respectful of his new setting, said Japanese hitters may make up in their contact hitting what they lack in power.

Either gamesmanship or ego flashed when he was asked about surrendering the drive to Venable, which was rescued from being a home run only by the height of the blue hitter's eye in center field.

"Well you know, with the dry air in Arizona and the wind blowing out, it kind of carried the ball pretty far today,'' Darvish said. "To me, it didn't seem like it was hit very squarely.''

This was greeted with wide-eyed disbelief in the Padres' clubhouse.

"Wow,'' Venable said. "I hit it good. … Maybe his perception of reality isn't right on.''

We'll see. But out of the starting gate, the smart money is on Darvish to iron out any kinks, either with his command of a fastball or reality.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ChiTribRogers