Let's fast-forward a couple of months. Pretend you're Ron Washington, preparing for the first game of the Division Series.
Who do you start?
When the Texas Rangers invested more than $100 million to sign Yu Darvish, they had to believe Darvish could be that No. 1 postseason starter, even if Nolan Ryan downplayed the idea at the time. Let's be honest: You don't spend $100 million to sign a No. 3.
These days, Darvish is looking less like an ace and more like a No. 5. He had perhaps the worst start of his major league career on Monday night at Fenway Park, allowing 11 hits, 4 walks and 6 runs in throwing 123 pitches over 6.2 innings. The Red Sox banged him around for eight doubles in the 9-2 victory. According to the Baseball-Reference.com Play Index, Darvish is the first starter to give up eight doubles in a game since Curt Schilling allowed nine in a 2006 start for the Red Sox against the Royals in Kansas City. The only other pitcher since 1990 to allow that many doubles in a game was Jim Abbott, in 1994.
Even more frustrating for the Rangers is Darvish's continued inability to throw strikes on a consistent basis. He has walked four or more batters in 10 of his 21 starts and is tied for third in the majors with 74 walks. Remember, in Japan he was known for his great stuff and great control; he walked just 36 batters in 28 starts in 2011. You hate to bring up the Daisuke Matsuzaka comparisons, but like Dice-K, it seems Darvish is doing a lot of nibbling at the corners, afraid to challenge hitters inside.
Here are his heats maps on his fastball versus left-handed and right-handed batters:
His fastball has been an ineffective put-away pitch. In 117 plate appearances against left-handers ending with fastballs, Darvish has allowed a .376/.496/.613 line. (Compared to a .275/.404/.488 line in 99 PAs against righties.) To me, it appears he's not trusting the pitch enough.
Part of his issues could be that in Japan he basically started just once a week. Here is his 2011 game log; most of his starts were made with six days of rest, sometimes more. He started only once all season on four days of rest. That allowed him to run up some big pitch counts -- seven games of 130-plus pitches -- but he has carried a heavy workload for the Rangers as well while making 11 starts on four days of rest, as only Justin Verlander and James Shields have averaged more pitches per start.
In a playoff series, there's the added consideration that in second and third starts against an opponent, Darvish is 3-5 with a 6.45 ERA. It's a small sample size, of course, but it possibly suggests that hitters are adjusting to Darvish's stuff after seeing him the first time.
So if not Darvish, who would the Rangers turn to?
Derek Holland had the great World Series start last season when he blanked the Cardinals for 8.1 innings, but he has a 5.17 ERA. In his past four starts, he has allowed six runs in three games while serving up nine home runs. And while we remember that Game 4 start, in his other three postseason starts he lasted a total of just 13.1 innings. Holland's strikeout and walk rates are essentially identical to his totals last season; the big difference has been his home run rate. Still, when the fastball is popping and he's keeping the ball down in the zone, he's the most dominant Texas starter.
Matt Harrison has certainly been the Rangers' most consistent starter, with a 3.17 ERA. If there's a cause to question Harrison's ace status, it's that he's not a big strikeout pitcher despite a solid 91- to 93-mph fastball. He relies on ground balls and that excellent infield defense provided by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler. There's the old cliche that October baseball is all about power pitching and it's perhaps worth noting that Washington didn't exactly trust Harrison to pitch deep into games last October, as he didn't pitch more than five innings in any of his four postseason starts. But it's also probably true that Washington has a lot more faith in Harrison this year.
Ryan Dempster just came over from the Cubs. In his first start with the Rangers, he was pounded for nine hits, two home runs and eight runs in 4.2 innings. Welcome to Arlington, Ryan. With the Cubs, Dempster has transformed into a command guy, as he has averaged just a tick better than 90 mph on his fastball. Will that play in the American League, especially in Arlington, where balls fly? And how will it play in a big game against, say, the Yankees?
Finally, there's Scott Feldman, currently on a string of three outstanding starts. When he's on, he keeps his sinker down, but if he gets it up, he's prone to giving up the long ones.
Maybe we're asking this question at the wrong time, when the Texas rotation looks a little shaky. The Rangers have allowed 61 runs over their past eight games and are just 13-16 over their past 29 games. There's also the Roy Oswalt drama that flared up with his demotion to the bullpen and Washington uncharacteristically calling out a player, saying Oswalt asked out of his latest relief appearance after two innings.
And you can also argue that this ace stuff is overrated. After all, the Rangers were one out away from winning the World Series last year even though their starters pitched at least six innings in just four of 17 playoff games.
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