Darvish good for Rangers, and vice versa

Darvish good for Rangers, and vice versa

Darvish good for Rangers, and vice versa
Texas, when you get right down to it, really is the Chicken Fried Nation.

This is a state steeped in history and tradition going all the way back to when William Barret Travis, Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett stared down Santa Anna's army at the Alamo. Oil and gas, farming and ranching are still big in this state, and a 10-gallon hat, blue jeans and cowboy boots remain standard uniform for those riding the ranges of the High Plains, hunting deer in the breathtaking Hill Country or fishing on a serene lake in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

But the Texas Rangers have made baseball hard to ignore in a state that loves winning above all else. Back-to-back trips to the World Series have suddenly made the Rangers a hot summer ticket -- and not because of the triple-digit heat.

Into this bastion of tradition has come Yu Darvish, a 25-year-old phenom and cultural idol from Japan, a right-hander with undeniable talent, countless pitches and impressive stats from seven years with the Nippon-Ham Fighters.

The Rangers have signed Asian pitchers before, but only with mixed success. Reliever Akinori Otsuka was the team's pitcher of the year in 2006, but most fans have a lasting memory of the trials and tribulations of Chan Ho Park, the Korean who was touted as a No. 1 starter but found himself lost in Texas after being seduced away from Los Angeles, where he had excelled as a member of the Dodgers.

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But the Rangers did not let that deter them in their offseason pursuit of Darvish, who was posted by the Fighters and, after dominating Japanese hitters, wanted to show his fans that he could compete against the best in the world.

For approximately $107 million -- including a $51.7 million posting fee paid to the Fighters -- the Rangers have given him that chance. It's been a unique courtship between a Japanese superstar aiming to be the best pitcher in the world and an American League powerhouse seeking to win the World Series.

Darvish wants to win as well, and that's why he was thrilled when the Rangers outbid all other teams.

"I am very honored to be here and wear this uniform and be a part of this team," Darvish said through an interpreter. "It's a really good team. Getting into the rhythm and the pace of the game, getting to know hitters, that's all coming along. For half a season, so far it's going well."

That seemed to be the case as the Rangers approached the midpoint of the season and speculation as to who belonged on the AL All-Star team began. (Darvish eventually won the Final Vote for the 34th spot on the roster.) After a 7-5 victory over Detroit in his 15th start, Darvish stood at 10-4 with a 3.57 ERA and was third in the league in K's, with 106.

But, he said, "I think I also lead the league in walks."

He did. He had 50 at that point, with 12 of those having come in the first inning. But he and Matt Harrison have become lifeguards on a pitching staff that was clobbered by injuries in the first half.

"He's got good stuff," Tigers skipper Jim Leyland said after that June game. "He's an impressive guy. I tip my cap to him, because he's got a nice assortment of pitches."

Darvish's most dominant performance came when he and closer Joe Nathan combined for a 2-0 shutout of the Yankees on April 24 before 47,095 home fans. In 8 1/3 innings he walked two and struck out 10.

"You hear a lot of guys get hyped; he was everything that you'd heard," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said then. "I can't say enough. We had a game plan to make him throw strikes. He definitely did that. If you tried to be patient, you were down 0-1, 0-2. If you tried to be aggressive, every pitch seemed like it started around the zone and moved out of the zone."

Darvish wants to cut down on the walks, talking about the "substance" of his outings not being consistent. But the Rangers know that he has had to make countless adjustments coming to the Major Leagues. The baseball is different, and so are the hitters. He is pitching outdoors in the hottest city in the Majors instead of in Japan's domed stadiums, and is doing so every five days rather than once a week.

He is also getting used to a new culture, and still relies daily on Rangers scout Joe Furukawa, also a native of Japan, to help him navigate the AL, as well as the demands of the media. But he had no trouble wolfing down a Texas-sized steak in his first get-acquainted dinner with club president Nolan Ryan and other members of the Rangers' staff.

"He's still adjusting," said manager Ron Washington. "He had to learn the hitters and he had to learn the league, how to use his pitches and when to use them. We may not see the real Yu Darvish until the end of this year or early next year. This guy has had a lot to deal with. After all that, he's still pitching well.

"He just has to rocket the strike zone. When that happens you get outs outside the strike zone. He's just trying to be who he is. He'll figure it out."

Darvish has certainly figured out Rangers Ballpark, a place known for being a hitter's park mainly because of a jet stream that comes in from left field during the hot summer and blows out to right. He has made it his home, winning his first seven starts there to earn standing ovations from large crowds -- not to mention an All-Star bid.

"It's really great that every time I pitch here, there are so many fans here to cheer us on," he said. "I really appreciate the fans coming out."

That's the way it was in Japan when Darvish won two Most Valuable Player Awards in the Pacific League and was a five-time All-Star.

"It gives us an international flair we didn't have before, and it brings a presence to the team," Ryan says. "Fans are excited about him and look forward to seeing him pitch. He's stimulated a lot more interest in our team."

Darvish's starts this year have been regularly broadcast live in Japan -- even his first Spring Training intrasquad game was a must-see event back home. And after two trips to the World Series and the addition of Darvish, the Rangers have been recognized around the world, able to cash in on their success rather than be sequestered in North Texas as the poor cousin to the NFL team next door.

George W. Bush, the former Rangers managing partner and 43rd President of the U.S., is among those who have turned out to see Darvish pitch. So, too, is Tom Schieffer, who was team president during the Bush era and ambassador to Japan during the Bush presidency. Schieffer understands better than most what kind of impact Darvish is having on the Rangers.

"It's huge," Schieffer says. "Everybody in Japan knows about the Texas Rangers. The Japanese love to see their stars succeed in Major League Baseball, and I think Yu Darvish is succeeding very well.

"They're very proud of him. It also brings an attention to this area and to the Rangers that they, frankly, haven't had before. You're going to see it all summer long, because Japanese tourists are going to make the trip to Texas to see the Rangers play. That might not have happened before."

But if Darvish was a rock star in Japan, he's trying hard to fit in as just one of 25 players on the Rangers. He still needs Furukawa as an interpreter and advisor, but his English is better than he lets on during news conferences, and he has mingled easily with teammates.

A big hit at the Rangers' Triple Play charity event in May was Darvish and fellow rookies Robbie Ross and Brandon Snyder performing a song-and-dance number on stage to the tune of Shania Twain's "Man! I Feel Like a Woman!" Another was the Darvish/Mike Napoli "Who's on First" rendition for a Rangers commercial.

Napoli: "Abbott and Costello ..."

Darvish: "Big in Japan."

"I'd say Day 1 he was a little quiet, but other than that, he seems like he's been here for 10 years," says pitcher Derek Holland, Darvish's throwing partner.

"He fits in well on the field," teammate Michael Young said. "He competes even if he doesn't have his best stuff on a given night.

"He works hard in the weight room, and he's made an effort to get to know everybody and be open with his teammates. He doesn't get any special treatment, and doesn't want any. He doesn't take the diva approach."

When all is said and done, what really counts is the result on the field. The Rangers did not acquire Darvish to be a cultural icon or a clubhouse comedian but a front-line starter on a team serious about winning the World Series.

The Rangers sent a dozen people to Japan over the past two seasons -- including general manager Jon Daniels -- to watch Darvish pitch and get a feel for whether his talent would translate to the Major Leagues. The answer was affirmative, as they saw a pitcher who complements a fastball that clocks from 94 mph to 96 mph with a vast array of pitches. Daniels was able to sell the price tag to the Rangers' ownership group.

Nobody knows just how many weapons Darvish has, but the repertoire includes at least a straight fastball, cut fastball, sinker, slider, curve, changeup and split-finger. Even he isn't quite sure how many pitches he employs.

"The bottom line is location," he says. "If I can locate my pitches, they are all usable. So far it's coming along well. I still feel I can get better. The substance of my starts, they have been good and bad. But overall my command is getting better. I am pleased with the way it is going, and I believe it's only going to get better."

So far, so good for Darvish in the Chicken Fried Nation.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This article appears in MLB Insiders Club Magazine, vol. 5, issue 5. To subscribe and join the Club, click mlbinsidersclub.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.