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Chen's upcoming Orioles debut will be big deal in Taiwan

When Orioles left-hander Wei-Yin Chen takes the mound at Camden Yards on Tuesday night for his first major league start against the New York Yankees, an entire nation will be watching.

Half a world away, in Chen's home country of Taiwan, baseball fans will get up early in the morning for the 7:05 a.m. first pitch to watch their latest native son who has made it to the big leagues.

Taiwanese television network Formosa TV is scheduled to air the Orioles' game live, and two other national networks are expected to do the same. That's why it was such a big deal where Chen would start the year in the Orioles' rotation: The Taiwanese networks wanted to make sure they could broadcast his first start.

Baltimore is a long way from the fields Chen grew up playing on. For a 26-year-old, he has already accomplished a lot -- representing his country in two Olympic Games and dominating hitters in the Japanese Central League for the past four years.

But this is different. This is what Chen has been dreaming about since he was in high school -- playing the game he loves on the world's biggest stage.

On Opening Day, Chen was still taking in everything new. Standing in the Orioles dugout, he looked out to the seating bowl of Camden Yards. It's by far the nicest stadium he's seen.

"It's beautiful," Chen said through interpreter Tim Lin. "It's a lot nicer than the ballparks I've played in before. In Japan, a 20-year-old ballpark looks like it's 20 years old. When they told me this stadium was 20 years old, I couldn't believe it."

The Orioles, who signed Chen to a three-year, $11.388 million deal with a 2015 club option this past offseason, hope Chen doesn't get caught up in the moment.

Chen is the first Taiwanese player in Orioles history and one of the key cogs of executive vice president Dan Duquette's offseason international scouting movement. Duquette also signed Japanese left-hander Tsuyoshi Wada, who began the season on the disabled list and remains in Florida getting his pitch count and arm strength up.

Chen was 36-30 with a 2.48 ERA in four seasons with the Chunichi Dragons of the Japanese Central League. In 2009, his 1.54 ERA was Nippon Professional Baseball's lowest ERA for a starter in more than four decades. Duquette especially liked Chen's strike-throwing ability; he has a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.27.

As a kid, Chen said he didn't know much about the major leagues, but once he was in high school, he began watching games and wondering if he would ever make it to the majors. His favorite player was flame-throwing left-hander Randy Johnson.

"When I was younger, I heard about his name a lot," Chen said. "In high school, I started watching his games, his pitching and his delivery. I just loved him growing up."

Now Chen's locker is one of the most crowded in the Orioles clubhouse, with a group of about eight to 12 reporters chronicling his every move for Taiwanese media outlets every day.

The past two months have been full of adjustments -- both on and off the field. Like any pitcher who comes to the United States from Asia, there are different nuances of the game. The baseball in the U.S. is larger and, some pitchers say, more slippery and difficult to grip. The dirt of the pitcher's mounds in Japan is softer in comparison to those here, which can cause more friction. There's also learning to communicate with new teammates, especially the catcher.

Orioles catcher Matt Wieters said Chen's made that adjustment well. Wieters sees a pitcher who has already gone through the adjustment process once while playing in Japan.

"I think he is more comfortable because he has been in different situations with different nationalities, just with what he has been a part of," Wieters said. "He is very comfortable here and his English -- he is not fluent -- but he knows a lot of words in English and he can communicate even without a translator.

"I see a guy who is very confident. A left-hander with a good arm. He's got a lot of life on his fastball, which is good. He is molded more like an American-type pitcher instead of an Asian-type pitcher. He's got an extra little jump on [his fastball] and he's got off-speed pitches that pitching over there you have to use, and he's got those. But I think his fastball is a little bit different than other guys from over there."

Chen said early this spring that spring training here is more fast-paced. In Japan, he has more time to work on mechanics in bullpens before moving on to live batting practice and Grapefruit League games.

"I've already learned a lot of lessons here," Chen said. "I've learned that it is up to you to do your job. Mentally, you have to be prepared. In Japan, the coaches just give you the rules and you follow them. Here, everyone is doing their own things. I've had to learn the process. The lifting, the pregame, the stretching, it's all on your own."

In the little time he's been here, Chen has been a quick study. He said he never worked on pickoff moves in Japan, but after a crash course with Orioles pitching coach Rick Adair, he picked two Red Sox base runners off first and nearly a third off second in a start on March 17.

And early on, he answered questions about his velocity dipping into the high 80s in his final season in Japan. He's been consistently in the 91-93 range. His slider-curve -- his out pitch in Japan -- has been steady, and he spent his final spring starts concentrating on a change-up that Orioles manager Buck Showalter said could be a key weapon against American League lineups.

In Sarasota, Chen said the main difference between the U.S. and Taiwan was that restaurants and stores closed much earlier here. Through his interpreter, Chen said he hasn't been able to find much Asian food in Florida or Baltimore.

"There's not much here," he said. "I have to control my nutrition. I end up eating a lot. That's the only thing I need to adjust to."

His new favorite food?

"Steak," he said in English.

Chen has already made his own goals for this season. This year, it's to get adjusted and stay healthy, but by 2013 he wants to make at least 30 starts and throw 200 innings.

Back home in Taiwan, everybody will be watching. They've seen countryman Chien-Ming Wang have success in the majors before. The right-hander had back-to-back 19-win seasons with the Yankees in 2006 and '07, along the way making the Yankees a popular team in Taiwan.

Jessica Ni, a Washington-based reporter who covers Chen and Wang (now with the Nationals) for Taiwanese network TVBS, said Chen's success could do the same for the Orioles in Taiwan.

"The fans are watching Chen's performance closely," she said. "Usually, when Wang was with the Yankees, they carried all the Yankees games in Taiwan. Now they are taking Orioles games.

"When [Nationals slugger] Michael Morse drove in runs [for Wang], he was nicknamed 'Friend of Taiwan,'" she said. "Maybe sometime in the future, with the Orioles, there might be a player nicknamed 'Friend of Taiwan.'"

If Chen starts off well, he will have plenty of quick friends in Baltimore.

"All of this is a dream come true," Chen said. "Right now, I just want to prove to everybody that I can pitch here."

eencina@baltsun.com

twitter.com/eddieintheyard

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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