Yu Darvish missed his last scheduled start because of a stiff neck.
The Rangers right-hander figures to be even more of a pain in the neck for opposing hitters this season.
Darvish appeared completely healthy in Texas’ 6-2 win at Goodyear Ballpark on a placid Saturday and, with but one start remaining before the regular season begins a week from today, looked on track to begin the year as dominant as he finished the last one.
If Texas is to make anything of this season, Darvish will have to be.
Considering the back end of the rotation includes a mercurial Alexi Ogando and Nick Tepesch, who has never pitched above Double-A, Texas is going to have to get as many W’s out of Darvish and Matt Harrison as possible and hope Colby Lewis returns by May from his torn flexor surgery.
The club is hurting for pitching and has to maximize what it has because of a less powerful offense and a more formidable division, the Astros notwithstanding.
Darvish said he’s ready. Well, kinda.
Through an interpreter, Darvish said he’s on schedule and could have pitched longer than his five innings. Darvish never gives interviews in English.
“I only speak English with him,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said. “I don’t know Japanese. But baseball is a universal language.”
During a give-and-take with the media including 26 Japanese reporters, Darvish didn’t show near the command of English as he did most of his 79 pitches Saturday, but that may all be a front. He comes off as totally disinterested. Even though most suspect he speaks and understands more than he lets on — both of his parents went to college in Florida — it’s less important he recognize the nuances of a crazy language where Mexia is pronounced Ma-hay-a than it is he figure out how to retire batters.
Geovany Soto, who has become Darvish’s personal catcher, does converse with him in English, but mostly “a lot of baseball stuff, like fastball away.”
When I asked Darvish his biggest surprise in his first season in the major leagues and his most necessary adjustment, he uttered about 100 words in his native tongue. Interpreter Kenji Nimura answered, “Nothing concrete.” Nothing like the mystery of the Far East.
Darvish does understand strike three but also ball four and realizes he needs to work on his control and challenge hitters more frequently than is done in his country. Major-league hitters are better at laying off borderline pitches.
He struggled some with his control — he walked the pitcher for Pete’s sake — on this cloudless day but allowed just three hits in four innings. Of course, two were home runs, and one wound up in the parking lot where Joey Votto sent Darvish’s breaking pitch.
In the same at-bat, Darvish made the Cincinnati slugger’s knees buckle, and the crowd simmered. So when Votto crushed a hanger deep over the right-center field fence and rounded the bases, he put a finger to his lips and shushed his own crowd. Todd Frazier, the Reds’ young third baseman, clubbed the other homer, but Darvish said he thought it was just a pop fly.
He allowed a few of those last season, 14 to be exact in a solid season with 16 wins and 221 strikeouts, club records for a Rangers rookie. He won’t start Opening Day. Wash awarded that to workaholic Harrison. That has largely been a ceremonial role for this franchise because it’s had some dubious candidates in that role although I don’t think Jose Canseco did.
But Darvish has to be the best pitcher on this Texas staff if the Rangers are to amount to anything. After a rocky stretch including a 1-4 slump with a 7.04 ERA in July-August, he finished strong, posting a 5-1 record with a 2.35 earned run average in his last eight regular-season starts.
He’ll need to start that way, too.
For one thing, he’s lost the entourage. Or at least the 150 or so Japanese media that followed his every move last spring. Without such shadows, Darvish says, “I feel more relaxed.”
Even better, Darvish should have a better working knowledge of AL hitters and umpires and maybe even ballparks.
He also needs to ditch some of his celebrated seven pitches, since that was problematic at times. As Washington put it, “He needs to come out of the bullpen, knowing what’s working instead of trying to use everything in his arsenal.”
Less can be more.
He can’t walk 89 batters in 191 innings as he did last year. After finishing ninth in the AL Cy Young voting, he conceivably could win it this season. Just don’t look for him to have much to say about it. His work on the mound — and a very nice interpreter — can do that.