Adjusting to U.S. life part of game for Yu, Aoki
High-profile Japanese stars live up to hype in first spring meeting
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Surprise Stadium had something of an Opening Day feel on Monday, replete with the chill in the air, the television satellite trucks and the media horde. This was not your standard Cactus League matchup.
Instead, it was a matchup of Yu Darvish and Norichika Aoki, the highest-profile pitcher and hitter to jump across the Pacific Ocean this past winter. Darvish, the pitching sensation, made his third spring start for the Rangers. Aoki, the three-time Japanese batting champion, manned center field for the Brewers.
Milwaukee manager Ron Roenicke joked that he started Aoki to appease the handful of Japanese reporters who have populated Brewers camp this spring. And over in Rangers camp, manager Ron Washington was surrounded by the media throng that has been on the ground in Arizona to witness every one of Darvish's on-field activities.
Once the game started, both players lived up to the hype, at least as much as two players can while getting their proverbial work in.
Darvish gave up only one hit in four innings and showed off his proficiency at missing bats. He looked dominant in the first and third, going 1-2-3 in each frame, and looked wild in the second and fourth, amassing three walks, a wild pitch, a hit batsman and an outing-ending double play.
Aoki, who had been hitting .194 this spring, singled in the only run off Darvish, added a game-tying triple in the sixth, and finished with three hits, three RBIs, a stolen base and a run scored.
And all the while, both players were continuing a transition many have tried and few have conquered: the move from Japan to the U.S. Major Leagues.
For Darvish, in whom the Rangers have invested more than $110 million, things have gone as expected. The big right-hander has struggled with command at times, but he says that's nothing new this time of year.
"The way my body is working, my delivery, I can't really repeat it all the time right now," Darvish said through an interpreter. "The consistency is not there. That's why you see some good pitches and some bad ones. And I don't expect it to be perfect right now anyway. Those are some things I'm going to continue to plan on polishing as we go on.
"Every spring, I'm usually not sharp. So my situation right now, I don't see much difference from previous springs."
The Rangers will be just fine if Darvish, who takes the place of the departing C.J. Wilson in the starting rotation of the two-time defending American League champions, ends up being as good as he was in Japan. Brewers reliever Kameron Loe, who pitched in Japan in 2009, saw it firsthand.
"Yu Darvish just absolutely dominated over there," Loe said.
Loe cited the fact that Japanese teams produce remarkably detailed scouting reports for hitters, detailing with pie graphs the percentages of various pitches in various counts.
But when Loe's SoftBank Hawks faced Darvish, it was different.
"It was like, 'Go get 'em,'" Loe said with a shrug. "It was kind of funny, actually. ... He was a rock star over there. I was over there three years ago and he was already on the covers of magazines -- a heartthrob."
And Aoki wasn't bad either. He told reporters he also was a slow starter in Japan, and that didn't seem to affect him when the regular-season bell rung. He won Central League batting titles in 2005, '07 and '10 and batted better than .300 in six of his seven full seasons.
"He's definitely going to be an asset for us," said Brewers third-base coach Ed Sedar, the team's outfield and baserunning instructor. "Don't go on Spring Training [statistics]. Some superstars would be released if you went on Spring Trainings. It's a hard thing."
It's also hard being in America for the first time. Darvish was asked about his adjustment this spring and deflected the question, preferring to say how at home he's felt because of the Rangers' hospitality.
Aoki, however, did admit that it hasn't been an easy change.
"There are some things I am having a hard time adjusting to over here," Aoki said Monday morning through an interpreter, savoring a quiet clubhouse moment before a hectic day. "I'm just not used to life over here yet."
That life includes a new brand of baseball, a new baseball, literally, plus new opposing pitchers for Aoki, new hitters for Darvish, and a new Spring Training protocol dramatically different from Japan, where players train longer and harder. The adjustments are also cultural: the language barrier, unfamiliar teammates, the food.
But Aoki says the Brewers have made him feel welcome, and he's also spent time with some other Japanese players in Arizona, including the Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki and Munenori Kawasaki. Aoki has found a Japanese restaurant in Phoenix that he likes.
And despite all the flashbulbs popping in his eyes as he spoke in an interview tent set up specifically for his arrival, Darvish seemed as easy as the desert breeze when asked about his new home.
"From the first day, I didn't have many struggles," he said. "I think that's a credit to his whole team. The staff and the players are very good people and very welcoming. They've made me feel at ease. Even from the first day, I was able to enjoy baseball and being here."
As for what the future holds, both teams are hoping that each player will reach the potential he demonstrated while becoming an icon in his native country.
Loe, for one, doesn't have doubts about Aoki.
"It will take a minute for him to get into rhythm, but he's a heck of a player," Loe said. "I've seen him work. A guy like that, he's going to be able to make the adjustment."
As for Darvish, Washington seems to like what he sees. A lot.
"He doesn't get too high or too low," Washington said. "You've got to stay in the fight, and he does that. That's just the sign of a good pitcher."
Ryan Braun won the National League MVP last year. On Monday, he went hitless in two at-bats against Darvish, and he seemed impressed, too.
"I only saw six or seven pitches, so it's hard for me to say, but the stuff was there. He definitely has good, pure stuff," Braun said. "You can tell he's confident out there, so I'm sure he'll be successful. ... And he looks like a pitcher. He's big, he's tall and he throws downhill. He definitely is a presence on the mound."
Maybe the most important thing a person in a new, traumatic and sometimes daunting situation can hold onto is a sense of humor. Darvish seems to have kept that intact despite his long journey to get here.
When asked which pitch he feels the best about and which one he's most behind on this spring, Darvish answered the former question by saying he's happy with the progress of his two-seam fastball. Then he whispered to his interpreter and smiled.
"My gyroball," he said. "That's probably behind the most."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Brew Beat, and follow him on Twitter at @AdamMcCalvy. Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB and read his MLBlog, Youneverknow. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.