PEORIA, Ariz. — Back when Daisuke Matsuzaka was going through the process of coming to the major leagues, stories circulated that he threw something called a gyroball — a pitch of mysterious and unique properties that was unknown outside of Japan. If a hitter even made contact, legend had it, his bat would just implode and form a black hole.
Since 2007, we all have watched Dice-K pitch for the Boston Red Sox. If he actually throws a gyroball, Matsuzaka either uses it so sparingly — or so often — that nobody has ever noticed.
The abilities of 25-year-old Yu Darvish have been described in similarly mythical ways, which is why his debut for the Texas Rangers on Wednesday was attended by at least 150 reporters and was televised back home live to Japan (where it was about 4:30 in the morning for his first pitch). Warming up to the tune of Cheap Trick's "I Want You To Want Me" (I want Yu — get it?) Darvish gave us a first taste of why the Rangers paid $111 million to sign him away from the Nippon Ham Fighters.
That he threw two scoreless innings against the San Diego Padres, with three strikeouts, no walks and 26 of 36 pitches for strikes tells only part of the story. And it makes him sound too ordinary.
A tall and slender right-hander of Japanese and Iranian descent, Darvish is said to throw six pitches — no, it's seven. Actually, some Japanese media members told Los Angeles Times reporter Dylan Hernandez that Darvish has more than 10 pitches. And that's probably just from the stretch.
C'mon, 10? Nobody can throw 10 pitches with reliable command. Darvish might try, though. Catcher Yorvit Torrealba doesn't have enough fingers to cover such a repertoire.
"At one point I was thinking of taking my glove off and giving signs with two hands," Torrealba said jokingly.
Pitching coach Mike Maddux clarified, saying that Darvish throws a "[f]our-seamer, two-seamer, cutter — so, three different fastballs. Four-seam change, split [-finger] change — he has two different change-ups. Hard curve, slow curve, sweeping slider, down slider. ... So, really, he's got four pitches, but he's got variations of each pitch."
If we define variations as distinct pitches, that's nine total. But wait, there's more! Maddux was asked if he's seen Darvish throw "a one-seamer." A one-seam what? And which finger would grip the one-seamer?
"I've seen the five-seamer but not the one-seamer," Maddux replied — perhaps kidding, perhaps not. A five-seamer? Is that like a palm ball? Maybe it's our imaginary friend the gyro. Maddux didn't elaborate. The myth just grows that way.
Darvish didn't seem to like the question of why he pitched the entire game from the stretch (as in, never using the full wind-up). He just felt like it. Sometimes, starting pitchers do that in spring training, pitch only from the stretch, though Maddux pointed out that he saw video of Darvish from a regular-season game when he did it.
"I gotta check the rule book, but I don't think there's an infraction for pitching out of the stretch," Maddux said. "It's OK to pitch out of the stretch; the biggest pitches you'll make in the game come out of the stretch. If you want to hone that craft, by all means."
Darvish just has his own way of doing things.
"Not to engage in stereotypes, but he's definitely more of an American-style pitcher," Padres catcher John Baker said. "He's less likely to work the corners, he'll challenge you. He works fast, is quicker to the plate, he throws fastballs to get ahead."
Darvish's day wasn't perfect. He pitched out of a jam after allowing a long double, off the high fence in center field to Will Venable to lead off the second inning. After covering first smartly on a grounder that moved Vanable to third, the 6-foot-4 Darvish reached high into the air to snare a comebacker hit by James Darnell. He got Venable into a rundown between third and home to more or less end the scoring threat.
"The great pitchers, when guys get in scoring position, that's when you see those guys really hone in," Baker said. "He gave up the bomb to Venable and he got out of it without scoring the run. That's what you look for — those situations when a run's on the line — how does the guy respond?" Baker, who played for the Marlins a season ago, also dropped the name Josh Johnson when describing Darvish's skills.
A battalion of photographers followed most of Darvish's movements, snapping at him from the moment he got off the team bus, to when he started stretching in the outfield, to when he briefly put his hands down his pants to tuck in his jersey near the visitor's bullpen. Amateurs spied him with video cameras, too, and a few fan girls held up signs cheering Darvish on in two languages. And that was all before "The Star-Spangled Banner." A whole country was watching, and part of another. But if Darvish minded, or even noticed, he didn't let on. He achieved something like rock star status in Japan, so he's used to the attention.
Now here's the fun part: Now we can get used to him, and his open-ended pitching repertoire.