ARLINGTON, Texas – You don’t know for sure whether someone is worthy of the title of No. 1 pitcher in a starting rotation until you see them under intense pressure.
So even though Yu Darvish was clearly this club’s best pitcher the final few months of the season, there was still that unknown about the bright lights of the postseason. In what was essentially a Game 7 on Friday night – the first AL wild-card game where the winner advanced and the loser got the golf clubs out of the garage – Darvish showed he’s got what it takes to front this rotation in 2013.
The Rangers’ search for a true No. 1 is over. He’s on the club for five more seasons.
If Darvish’s offense had scored just a few runs for him, he’d be preparing to pitch Game 3 of the ALDS at Yankee Stadium. Instead, he’ll stay in shape in the offseason and return to Surprise, Ariz., as one of the top young pitchers in the game. It was clear that his playoff experience in Japan had helped prepare him to handle the stress of postseason baseball at the highest level.
The Darvish that finished the season with eight straight quality starts was the same one that showed up on Friday in Arlington, despite the magnitude of the game. Darvish didn’t change his approach. He stayed aggressive, tried to get ahead of hitters and then used his off-speed stuff very effectively. His best pitch all year – the slider – was a weapon for him again on Friday. He didn’t walk anyone and when he departed with two outs in the seventh and a runner at second, it was a 2-1 game.
“I felt very good,” Darvish said through interpreter Joe Furukawa. “I felt my command was good and I was able to keep the team in the game. So I thought I pitched pretty good tonight.”
Darvish came into the game at 5-1 with a 2.35 ERA in his previous eight starts, finishing the season on a strong note. Darvish simplified his repertoire and started attacking hitters more. His curveball and slider kept hitters off-balance after they saw his cutter and four-seamer. He effectively dropped his two-seamer because he didn’t need it.
It all came together for Darvish the past two months as he settled in and looked like the guy the Rangers’ scouts raved about in Japan.
“I think he showed that pedigree during the season,” pitching coach Mike Maddux said. “It wasn’t as consistent as it was coming down the stretch. He got more accustomed to the major leagues, the U.S., and the more acclimated he became here and the more he learned about how his stuff plays, the better he got.
“The guy has feel. He had to feel it. I think his confidence level went way up.”
Darvish impressed his teammates too as he seemed to improve with every start late in the season. He pitched against playoff contenders and won games – or at the very least kept his team in it.
“That’s why we signed him,” starter Matt Harrison said. “All the hype, he lived up to it the last couple of months. He has the stuff, it was just a matter of him learning the style of baseball here. Watching him pitch the last few months has been fun to watch.”
Darvish said he hadn't had time to reflect on his first big league season, one that likely would have landed him an AL rookie of the year award if Mike Trout hadn't dominated.
"My mind is more of a blank now," Darvish said. "I really can't tell you what kind of season it was. But the way I feel, it's almost like they tll you to run a 30-mile marathon. At the last stretch you're about to finish and they tell you to stop. I had to stop and it was just a little bit more to go and I could have finished it. That's how I feel right now."