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Yu Darvish sure looks like a Game 1 starter

ARLINGTON, Texas -- If the regular season ended this weekend and the playoffs started next week, Yu Darvish should get the ball in Game 1 of the ALDS for the Texas Rangers.

Of course, the season doesn't end now. But at some point, barring a major reversal of the club's current winning pace, the Rangers are going to run out of magic numbers and clinch a playoff spot for the third straight season.

And if Darvish continues at the pace he's put up the last month, he should be the guy that leads things off for the Rangers in the playoffs.

Darvish no longer looks like the guy who struggled in his first inning against the Mariners on the opening homestand. Or the guy that for a stretch of seven straight starts in June and July was issuing at least three walks per outing. Gone is the guy who looked uncertain about which of his many pitches to throw in key at-bats.

Before Friday, the Mariners had a 9.00 ERA against Darvish. But the last time they saw him was July 14. Two months later, he's a much better pitcher, as his performance the Rangers' 9-3 win showed.

"It’s not the same Darvish they saw earlier in the year," manager Ron Washington said. "It’s a different pitcher. He has a different attitude. The difference is he’s not trying to use everything he has. He’s identifying what’s working and he’s going with it and he’ll do something else later on. He's not the same pitcher they saw in April or May. It's a different guy and it showed tonight."

It did. Darvish went seven innings and gave up one run on two hits with two walks and nine strikeouts. He left with his team ahead 2-1 and the offense pounded out a seven-run eighth to turn the final margin into a comfortable one. For Darvish, it was his third consecutive start of at least seven innings and three or fewer hits. Nolan Ryan is the only other Rangers pitcher to do that, putting together a trio of starts like that in 1990.

Darvish also crossed the 200-strikeout plateau Friday, becoming the sixth AL rookie since 1900 to do it. He's also the fourth-fastest major league pitcher to that mark since 1918.

"I feel nothing," Darvish said of the strikeout achievement. "The goal of pitching up here isn’t to throw how many strikeouts. I don’t feel anything towards that number."

Sounds like a guy with a playoff mentality, doesn't it? That's the other big difference in Darvish the past month. There's no sign of fear from him. It's not that he was scared earlier in the season, but he's pitching with a confidence that is more visible these days.

In his last four starts, Darvish is 2-0 with a 1.86 ERA (six earned runs in 29 innings). He's allowed just 13 hits and has 33 strikeouts to seven walks. In fact, in his last five starts, Darvish has walked eight batters. He walked 29 batters in his previous seven starts before that (an average of 4.14 per game).

"I’m able to concentrate and compete against the hitters, get them out,” Darvish said. “When I need to throw a strike, I’m able to do that. That’s allowed me to throw more relaxed."

Darvish has simplified his approach and found more consistent command in the process. He's throwing more cutters and Friday he incorporated more of his curveball.

Give some of that credit to Washington, who had a sit-down meeting with Darvish in Boston and since that start, one that was a struggle for Darvish, the Japanese pitcher has gone on this solid run. Pitching coaches Mike Maddux and Andy Hawkins have certainly helped. But Darvish has done the work.

"It’s confidence," Washington said of what he sees in Darvish. "It’s confidence, comfort, relaxation. All of that plays into it. But as a pitcher, you have to know what’s working."

Darvish does. And it's working well enough that he should get the ball for Game 1 of the playoffs. It also means that if it comes down to a winner-take-all Game 5, Darvish would be on the mound. That's fine with me. Darvish looks confident and comfortable. I don't think he'd shrink in that kind of situation.

As several scouts told me this offseason, Darvish has pitched in big moments before. He certainly looks like that pitcher so many of those scouts described before he perched himself on a mound in Surprise, Ariz. Soon, he'll get a chance to prove he's that pitcher when it matters most.