Commentary

Yu Darvish gives Rangers hope

Game 1 starter has looked more and more like an ace by just being himself

Updated: October 5, 2012, 3:36 AM ET
By Jean-Jacques Taylor | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- A day after Boston pounded Yu Darvish for 11 hits and six runs in early August, Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington summoned his 26-year-old pitcher to the visiting manager's office in Fenway Park.

[+] EnlargeYu Darvish
Tim Heitman/US PresswireYu Darvish has earned the confidence of Ron Washington and the Rangers, and rightfully so.

"So many people were talking about the negative. I wanted him to know that I saw the positives through the negatives," Washington said of the conversation. "I saw him relaxed. I saw him compete. I saw a pitcher who didn't back down when he walked a batter.

"I saw him attack the strike zone. I saw him work fast and he just kept coming after them. When I told him that, Darvish's face just kind of lit up and that's when I knew that he knew [he] could do some good things for us."

Well, that qualifies as an understatement.

Since the butt-kicking in Boston eight starts ago, Darvish is 5-1 with a 2.35 ERA and a pair of no decisions. He has struck out 67 and walked 15, while allowing just 35 hits in 57 1/3 innings.

Six times he has pitched at least seven innings, and twice he has gone 6 2/3.

He has been -- dare we say it -- an ace.

When the Rangers spent $51.7 million just for the opportunity to sign Darvish, then gave him a six-year $56 million deal, we figured he'd eventually be the Rangers' best pitcher. We just didn't now it would happen this fast.

He has earned the right to start the Rangers' first game of the postseason Friday night against the Baltimore Orioles at Rangers Ballpark and be the rotation's anchor. As good as Matt Harrison has been this season, Darvish is the Rangers' best pitcher right now with his 16-9 record and 3.90 ERA.

And it's not debatable.

The Rangers will ask Darvish to salvage their dignity after becoming the first club in MLB history to be in first place for 178 days and not win the division.

We've spent a lot of time focusing on Josh Hamilton's ridiculously sorry play when he dropped a routine fly ball with two on and two out in the fourth inning in Wednesday's regular-season finale, allowing Oakland to grab a two-run lead it never relinquished.

If not for Hamilton's gaffe, we'd be talking about yet another sorry start from Ryan Dempster against a quality opponent. He has had six starts against clubs with winning records since the Rangers acquired him and he's gotten bashed around five times.

Derek Holland has a 6.50 start in his past three starts, allowing 12 runs in 16 2/3 innings. Harrison has a 3.60 ERA in his past three starts, but he has never going to have dominant stuff.

And let's not even talk about the fifth spot in the rotation, which has lost each of its past 10 decisions.

It should be apparent to even the most causal Rangers fan why Darvish is starting the Rangers' first playoff game.

Darvish has the swing-and-miss stuff you want from your top pitcher in the postseason. It allows him to pitch out of jams and erase mistakes. Darvish, who struck out 221 batters this season, has struck out at least eight batters in six of his past eight starts.

He has actually done the impossible, which is live up to most of the hype he received when he left Japan for the big leagues.

He pitched well early, then fell into a bad streak for about two months. He nibbled too much and gravitated toward tricking hitters instead of blowing them away.

Then there was the constant tinkering of his delivery, by both Darvish and Mike Maddux, as he searched for a rhythm and adjusted to the slightly larger and slicker baseball used in Major League Baseball.

These days his delivery is smoother and the slight hesitation in his leg kick is gone.

Whatever he's doing, it's working.

He looks pretty much like the guy Jon Daniels and his scouting staff told us we'd be seeing after they agreed to contract terms with Darvish. That guy dominated the Japanese League, going 93-38 with a 1.99 ERA.

Darvish overmatched the hitters in that league; big league hitters present a much more difficult challenge because they tend to swing from their ankles instead of slapping at the ball.

Darvish, who seemingly throws too many pitches to count, no longer uses his entire repertoire in a single game.

He'll figure out the three or four pitches working in his bullpen session before the game and stick to those. He throws strikes, confident his pitches have enough movement and velocity that few hitters will connect with the bat's sweet spot.

And he has started pitching for himself instead of his country. No longer does he carry the weight of a nation on his back.

"He quit trying to impress everyone," Washington said. "He had to do it for himself and the team. When things don't go right, he can't be concerned with how everyone is feeling.

"All he needs to care about is what he thought about his performance. It doesn't matter what everyone in Japan feels about it. How he feels is all that matters."

Right now, Darvish feels good. And that gives Washington and the Rangers hope this season will be remembered for more than an end-of-the-season collapse.

Jean-Jacques Taylor joined ESPNDallas.com in August 2011. A native of Dallas, Taylor spent the past 20 years writing for The Dallas Morning News, where he covered high schools sports, the Texas Rangers and spent 11 seasons covering the Dallas Cowboys before becoming a general columnist in 2006.

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