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Texas Rangers’ Yu Darvish has an enigmatic start

Reporting from Peoria, Ariz. — Seated at a table on the far end of an auxiliary locker room that was turned into a makeshift interview room, Yu Darvish clasped his hands. He twiddled his thumbs. He looked at his interpreter, at the ceiling, even at the tape recorders placed in front of him, but almost never at the person asking him a question.

The high-priced Japanese free agent had pitched two scoreless innings in his first game for the Texas Rangers, but didn’t smile once. He spoke softly and said little.

Asked about fielding a high hopper by the San Diego Padres’ James Darnell and throwing out Will Venable at the plate in the second inning, Darvish said without any trace of humor, “I was just about to ask, ‘Aren’t there any questions about fielding?’”

So, what did Darvish think of the play?

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“It was good,” he said.

The unveiling of Darvish wasn’t a complete unveiling. The 25-year-old with orange-dyed hair remained as enigmatic as ever, hiding behind walls he constructed long ago to maintain distance from the type of media horde that gathered Wednesday at Peoria Stadium.

There were an estimated 150 reporters at the ballpark, many of whom gathered along the fences in the left-field corner to watch him play warmup with catcher Yorvit Torrealba before the game. Cameras shuttered when Darvish unbuckled his belt and slid down his pants slightly to tuck in his jersey. His 36-pitch, three-strikeout performance was broadcast live in Japan by four television stations.

John Blake, head of the Rangers’ communications department, worked for the Boston Red Sox when Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched his first spring training game for them in 2007.

“There’s more anticipation for this game than there was for Matsuzaka’s first game,” Blake said.

Blake said 15 to 18 Japanese newspapers sent reporters to Peoria on Wednesday.

“We had half that many for the World Series,” Blake said.

Blake said the Rangers are making a concerted effort to shield Darvish from the media.

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“For us, it was more about letting him concentrate on becoming comfortable,” Blake said.

Wednesday marked only the fourth time Darvish has talked to reporters this spring. He has answered questions only in formal news conferences, outside of which the 20 to 30 Japanese reporters who cover him daily have been instructed not to speak to him.

This much is known about Darvish: His father was born in Iran. His mother was born in Japan. They met in the United States. He was suspended by the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters as an 18-year-old rookie for partaking in underage smoking and gambling. (The legal age to smoke and gamble in Japan is 20.) He gradually reformed his bad-boy image, became Japan’s best pitcher and married an actress whom he divorced this off-season.

The Rangers spent $111 million to acquire Darvish, paying the Fighters $51 million for his rights and committing $60 million to him over the next six seasons.

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This is what the Padres learned about him Wednesday: He’s tall and he throws hard.

Padres second baseman Orlando Hudson said he was surprised by how tall the 6-foot-5 Darvish looked in person.

“When I got to the plate, I was like, ‘Damn, who the hell is this?’” Hudson said.

Darvish’s fastball touched 95 mph, prompting Venable to compare him to baseball’s elite pitchers.

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“His stuff is right up there with those guys,” Venable said.

But details of Darvish’s entire arsenal are sketchy.

Rangers catcher Torrealba said he called for six pitches Wednesday.

“At one point, I was thinking of taking my glove off” to use the fingers on both hands to call pitches, Torrealba joked.

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Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux listed nine pitches he knew Darvish could command: three fastballs, two changeups, two curveballs and two sliders.

Asked if he has seen Darvish’s rumored one-seam fastball, Maddux replied, “I’ve seen the five-seamer but not the one-seamer.”

Maddux was probably kidding, but no one was certain.

Darvish pitched exclusively out of the stretch, even when the bases were empty. He said he alternates between pitching out of the stretch on some days and the windup on others.

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“Depends on how I feel,” he said.

Darvish downplayed the magnitude of what happened Wednesday.

He said he wasn’t nervous. He wouldn’t even concede that major league hitters were superior to Japanese hitters.

“Major league hitters have more power,” he said. “But Japanese hitters are very good at making contact. I don’t like either.”

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Darvish gave up two hits — a double to right by Hudson in the first inning and a double by Venable in the second that would have left the yard had it not crashed into the batter’s eye in center field.

Darvish dismissed the idea that Venable’s double would have been a home run in a Japanese ballpark, saying the wind and arid environment made the ball travel farther. “I didn’t really feel like he got me,” Darvish said.

Something was lost in translation, resulting in American reporters’ telling Venable that Darvish said he didn’t square up the ball. Venable looked surprised.

“He was lucky that it didn’t go out,” Venable said. “Maybe his perception of reality isn’t as right on as … I don’t know.… No comment.”

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dylan.hernandez@latimes.com


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