ARLINGTON, Texas -- If consecutive division series victories don't already have the Texas Rangers deep in the heads of the Tampa Bay Rays, the events of the first two games in this potential postseason preview surely haven't helped the Rays' psyche.
On Monday, ace David Price was blistered by the Rangers' bats as Tampa fell a run short, 6-5. One night later, all it took was an Ian Kinsler solo shot in the fourth inning to top another Tampa Bay big-game pitcher in James Shields. If that's not befuddling enough for the visitors, they went down whiffing in their first look at Japanese import Yu Darvish, whose evolution is gaining steam as he learns to loosen the grip of expectation he's wrestled ever since arriving on Texas soil.
The freshly unburdened Darvish improved to 13-9 after Tuesday's 1-0 victory, in which he scattered six hits and pitched out of a no-out jam with runners at second and third in the second inning and then a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the fourth. After that he retired nine of the final 10 batters he faced, striking out six of them to give him 10 in seven innings and setting a rookie franchise record with his eighth double-digit strikeout game.
In his last two starts spanning 14 innings, Darvish has 20 strikeouts and walked three.
"He was outstanding, he really was, especially after the second, (he) got to the third then he began to execute his pitches," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "I think he showed what he’s made of."
Washington said the tall right-hander is doing more by thinking less. Coming off a 10-day layoff after missing his last start due to a quadriceps issue, Darvish kept the light-hitting Rays lineup off-balance with an assortment of fastballs, cutters, sliders and cuveballs. But most important to his success, Washington and Darvish agreed, is the pitcher's narrowed mindset.
"I can say in his case he was carrying a lot of baggage and I think he’s dumped the baggage, so we’ve got Yu Darvish here now," Washington said. "And when I say baggage, he came to the United States carrying a whole lot and he was trying to impress a ton of people. And I think right now the only thing he’s concerned about is impressing Yu Darvish, and once he does that he impresses everybody else."
"Today I felt really good. My command was good, my stuff was good," he said. "As my manager said, that’s exactly what I’m doing right now, just focused on pitching, competing against the hitters, not worried about the outside stuff or even giving up walks; so just pitching right now."
With it has come an abrupt end to the walks that had often done him in moreso than the opposing lineup. He walked just two batters Tuesday -- and three in his last 14 innings of work -- both coming in the only innings in which he had to work to avoid falling behind. In the second, a lead-off walk to Ben Zobrist was followed by a Luke Scott double to put runners at second and third with no outs.
Darvish then got Carlos Pena to strike out, Ryan Roberts to fly out to center and Jose Lobaton to ground out to second. In the fourth, Darvish walked Scott with no outs to put runners at first and second before an infield roller loaded the bases for Lobaton. First baseman Mitch Moreland, who made a run-saving stab in the eighth, gobbled up his grounder, fired to second for the force and Darvish caught the throw back to first from Elvis Andrus, stammered to find first base for a moment and then got the bag for the inning-ending double play.
On Monday, the Rays couldn't beat a sloppy Derek Holland with their ace on the hill. A night later, they were baffled by Darvish and hung Shields (12-9) with a loss despite him allowing just three of the Rangers' four hits.
None of it can be an especially pleasant development for the Rays if these two teams are to meet again in October.
"I know James Shields is a very good pitcher and he’s been pitching very well," Darvish said. "But I didn’t try to think that I was pitching against him or the fact that he was pitching well or the tight score in the game; just focused on making each pitch a quality pitch and getting the hitters out."