These are baseball’s most deceptive weeks. Bad teams play well. Good teams play poorly. The standings lie. Just not in the case of the Texas Rangers.
The Rangers have allowed the fewest runs in the major leagues.
The Rangers have scored the most runs in the major leagues.
The Rangers own the best record in the major leagues.
The Rangers are the best team in the major leagues.
All of that was true Thursday night, when their biggest offseason acquisition revealed his full potential for the first time in the major leagues. Yu Darvish put together by far his best start of the season, and he did it against a team — the Detroit Tigers — that ranked just behind Texas in record and batting average as the four-game set began.
Rangers general manager Jon Daniels was on hand to see it: 6 1/3 innings, one earned run, a 10-3 victory. He had to have the thought: That’s $107 million, well spent.
“Nah,” a smiling Daniels said afterward. “I’m not watching him, trying to justify the expense. We’re really confident he’s going to help us win games.”
In many ways, that has become the Rangers’ ethos: They are thorough, professional and no longer surprised by their own success. They could have started slowly, coming off consecutive World Series disappointments and the particularly cruel Game 6 defeat in St. Louis. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, the Rangers have reaffirmed that they are the class of the American League until someone proves otherwise.
Baseball is not a statement sport, in the way that individual NHL, NBA and NFL games send psychological messages about playoff encounters to come. But whether the Rangers and Tigers care to admit it, they are barometers for one another. They met in last year’s ALCS and then signed superstars in January: Darvish for Texas, Prince Fielder for Detroit.
Fielder has been as advertised, maintaining a .939 OPS through the season’s first 13 games. But Darvish didn’t become Darvish until Thursday. He established his fastball early and ordered from the remainder of his eight-pitch menu as the night wore on. Slow curves. Split-fingered fastballs. Cutters. The works.
Fielder and Miguel Cabrera combined to go 0-for-5 with a walk against Darvish — a feat for any pitcher. Cabrera said something while jogging past the mound after his sixth-inning fly out. “I’m not sure what he said,” Darvish said through interpreter Joe Furukawa, “but I think he mentioned something about a Japanese restaurant.” Whatever it was, Texas third baseman Adrian Beltre laughed on the field.
Darvish wasn’t dominant Thursday. He wasn’t always precise (five walks). But he was so comfortable with men on base that he started pitching from the stretch with no one on during the middle innings. Darvish described the in-game adjustment as changing “the color of my pen” — a metaphorical reference to the multicolored ballpoint you might have used in elementary school.
Smart guy. First he commands the fastball, then he masters the idioms.
Darvish’s biggest test came in the seventh inning, after an Ian Kinsler error left runners on first and second with none out. With the score 5-1, Detroit was in slam range. Pitching coach Mike Maddux came out for a visit with Darvish and catcher Yorvit Torrealba.
Maddux is American. Torrealba is Venezuelan. Darvish is Japanese. So how did they communicate? Maddux drew from his growing Japanese vocabulary.
As Maddux explained it, ushi is Japanese for bull. Or maybe cow. He isn’t sure. Either way, that’s Maddux’s way of asking if Darvish feels as strong as a bull. (Or cow.)
Darvish answered yes. So, even with his pitch count at 114, he stayed in to face Jhonny Peralta.
The result? A seven-pitch strikeout — culminating with a wipeout slider for his final pitch of the night.
“He has so many secondary pitches we can go to,” said Torrealba, who caught Thursday — and may continue doing so in future Darvish starts, considering the outcome. Torrealba has never worked with a pitcher who required more signs. “Never,” he said. “Imagine for a catcher: With so many pitches, we’re probably going to need two hands.”
Darvish used slightly different mechanics Thursday than in his previous two starts, as Rangers play-by-play man Eric Nadel mentioned during the early innings of his radio broadcast. The change had to do with the level of Darvish’s glove during his windup. Maddux downplayed the significance, saying it was a tweak Darvish made during a bullpen session.
But the implication is clear: Darvish, 25, is learning both himself and the major leagues. And the early returns — 2-0, 3.57 ERA — are encouraging.
“In the first outing, he was a little amped up, maybe a little nervous, but he settled down and got better,” said Josh Hamilton, who looks like his MVP self. “Then he got better in the (second) outing. He got better this outing. He’s starting to get more comfortable.”
The top-to-bottom strength of the pitching staff has alleviated the pressure on Darvish. He actually has the highest ERA in the rotation: Matt Harrison (0.64), Colby Lewis (1.83), Neftali Feliz (2.25) and Derek Holland (3.10). As if to underscore how well the Rangers are living in 2012, the lone starter who left the team after last season — C.J. Wilson — pitched Thursday for the rival Angels and surrendered two runs on his own throwing error.
“It’s hard to be perfect right away,” Darvish said, reflecting on his first couple of weeks in the majors. And that is true. But of all the teams in baseball, his team is the closest thing to it.