A sharp Yu Darvish gets some run support

SURPRISE, Ariz. – It was only one spring training game, but Texas Rangers starter Yu Darvish got to experience what early run support felt like Thursday.

Four hits in the second inning produced two runs, and even though Darvish pitched only two innings, he left with a 2-0 lead. It stretched to 4-0 -- thanks, in part, to a laser home run by Prince Fielder to right field -- before Tommy Hanson took the mound for the bottom of the third inning.

“I knew that our offense was going to help me this year, but this is only the first game of spring training,” Darvish said through interpreter Kenji Nimura. “I know that the opposing pitcher is still preparing, so I’m not too worried about it right now. I’m more concentrated on how I’m preparing for this spring training.”

Darvish, who gave up two hits (one on a broken bat) and had four strikeouts against the Kansas City Royals, averaged 4.81 runs of support in 2013. To put that in perspective, Justin Verlander got more than 5 ½ runs per start. Cy Young winner Max Scherzer got a whopping 6.80.

Darvish’s lack of run support was even more alarming was in close games. A total of 18 of Darvish’s 32 starts were decided by two runs or fewer. Darvish had a 2.53 ERA in those games, yet the Rangers scored just 2.3 runs per game in those 18 contests and hit .208. With runners in scoring position, Texas hit .165 with 33 strikeouts, 20 hits and no homers. Not surprisingly, Darvish went 6-12.

We’ve chronicled how much the Rangers struggled to score first in games last year. The offense also wasn’t one to score early as often as it would like. In Darvish’s 32 starts, the Rangers scored 11 runs in the first inning. They scored first when he was on the mound in 16 starts – exactly half. If they could improve on both numbers in 2014, it would give Darvish a chance to pitch with the lead right away, something every pitcher knows is a benefit.

“This is baseball, so if we score early I think it’s going to be advantageous for us,” Darvish said. “But I don’t want to put any pressure on our hitters. I’m going to stay with my pitches and do the best job that I can.”

Darvish’s personal goal this season: more first-pitch strikes. He faced eight batters and threw first-pitch strikes to all of them. Only 10 qualified starters in the American League had a lower first-strike percentage than Darvish’s 57 percent last year. More first-pitch strikes could lead to shorter innings and the ability to go deeper into games.

“I think it worked out very well,” Darvish said of the trend. “I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s pitchers meetings, and I think (pitching coach Mike) Maddux is going to praise my performance.”

Darvish chuckled, of course. But he’s probably right. His slider was nasty -- it looked like he’d been throwing it for months -- and he had good command. He threw 29 pitches (23 strikes) and struck out four. Darvish said it was his best first start of spring in three years. Why?

“Because I feel relaxed,” Darvish said.

Relaxed enough to throw a few changeups, a pitch he’s been working on but says isn’t “game ready” yet.

“I threw bullpens, live pitching and intrasquad, but there’s not the same adrenaline rush you have in a real game situation,” Darvish said. “I just wanted to make sure I was able to keep my composure and throw strikes, and I think I was able to do that today and make sure I was able to do the same routine as a regular season game.”