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No let-up in hype for Darvish, even when games don't matter

GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Despite all the attention paid by some 5,500 fans, 100 media members and an international television audience that were focused on Goodyear Ballpark on Tuesday afternoon, a single start is still a single start, especially when it's made by a veteran pitcher and lasts three innings in the second week of spring training.

As such, Yu Darvish's second spring training appearance was more a referendum on how his uniform fits than it was on how he will pitch for the two-time defending American League champions this season. (For the record, the skinny No. 11 on Yu Darvish's new Rangers uniform seems to accentuate his tall, slender build.)

So while Darvish slogged through three shaky innings against the Indians in which he allowed two runs (both earned) on three hits and four walks while striking out three, he still called it "a positive step." It's also important to remember that this was merely an exhibition game in the southwest corner of the Phoenix Valley, nearly four weeks and 1,100 miles from Darvish's first regular-season start during the Rangers' opening week homestand.

"He's human," catcher Yorvit Torrealba said. "Believe it or not, he's human."

Darvish, the 25-year-old Japanese import whom the Rangers spent $108 million to secure for the next six seasons, didn't control his fastball well -- "My command was way off," he said through his interpreter, Joe Furukawa -- but no one was terribly concerned. "If this was a real game, Darvish would have still had the ball," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "Through the course of the ball game, you never know, he may have found it. That's what good pitchers do, and we consider him a good pitcher."

In Japan, Darvish was more than good -- he was the best pitcher in the country, winning Nippon Professional Baseball's equivalent of the Cy Young once and the Pacific League's MVP twice. He also succeeded in high level competition, helping his teams win both the Japan Series and the World Baseball Classic.

Those credentials and the fact that he hails from a baseball-mad country will understandably lead to hysteria surrounding every start, even if the results, like Tuesday's are inconsequential and will be forgotten once the regular season begins.

More important for now is how he is making the transition to the major league game and a major league clubhouse.

The team has been impressed with Darvish's effort and in-roads he's made in the clubhouse, most notably in his studies of both English and Spanish so that he can communicate with teammates. When pitching coach Mike Maddux visited Darvish on the mound in the third inning, there was no translator present.

There are real in-game adjustments that need to be made, and Darvish has said all the right things about those changes.

When a reporter asked how he felt about not being able to play catch when his team was batting -- common practice in Japan -- Darvish noted that major-league pitchers are successful without the extra throws.

"That's the way they do it over here, and I'm happy to adjust to that," he said.

Another very real difference between baseball on either side of the Pacific Ocean is the ball itself; the major-league ball has less pronounced seams and a less tacky feel. There were rumors that he had been throwing the major-league ball for years, and Darvish received a shipment of new balls the day after Texas won the bidding rights for him.

"That doesn't bother me at all," he said of the new ball. "I don't think it'll be a problem."

It is reasonable, after all, to think that a poor grip would more likely affect the breaking pitches, and those were sharp on Tuesday.

One scout in attendance said Darvish's fastball touched 95 miles per hour and sat 90-to-94. His curve, meanwhile, kept a tight spin despite an evolutionarily slow 66-to-68 mph range. He varied 79 to 83 with his slider and was in the upper 80s with his splitter.

"His fastball was a little bit erratic, command-wise, but his other pitches were as sharp as they can be," bullpen coach Andy Hawkins said. "His secondary pitches -- there are probably four or five of them -- were very good today."

In consecutive second-inning pitches he struck out Jason Kipnis with an 88-mile-per-hour splitter and then started Fred Lewis with a 67-mile-per-hour curve. Lewis later struck out when he failed to check his swing on a 2-2 curve in the dirt.

"The difference in speed between his off-speed and his fastball is a big thing," Kipnis said.

If such troubles with the fastball persist over his next few outings, then maybe it will be cause for concern. For now, it's just another pitcher gearing up for the season, a message his manager tried to make clear.

"Second time, fellas," Washington said. "Second time. It's not like he's in game-ready form for the season. Second time."

Washington then added the words that will ensure the baseball world will keep its gaze firmly fixed on Darvish in the weeks ahead: "I can tell you this: he'll be game ready by April."

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