Darvish off to strong start in second spring

SURPRISE, Ariz. — The Texas Rangers may be winless in
Cactus League play, but Tuesday was still a successful day. Yu Darvish
picked up where he left off last season in dominating Chicago White Sox hitters
in two quick innings of work.

He retired all six
hitters he faced, and none of them made solid contact. The fidgety
Darvish who showed up last spring in Arizona was nowhere to be found. He
fell behind White Sox leadoff hitter DeWayne Wise, 2-0, but worked the
count to 2-2 before inducing a lazy fly ball to third base. Darvish was
among the American League leaders in walks allowed last season, but he
had better command of his pitches while going 5-2 with a 1.78 ERA in his
final seven starts.

Darvish attributed his success
Tuesday to the White Sox hitters not being 100 percent, which is a far
cry from how he handled his postgame news conference last spring. Asked
about a double by Padres outfielder Will Venable that nearly knocked
down the center-field wall, Darvish responded, “With the dry air in
Arizona and the wind blowing out, it carried the ball. It didn’t seem
like a ball that was hit that squarely.”

The comment
caused a mild stir because everything Darvish did seemed to have an
international impact. And it certainly made an impression on Rangers
pitching coach Mike Maddux.

“I thought last year,
there could’ve been a dose of overconfidence when he came in here,”
Maddux said of Darvish. “In a way, that wasn’t all bad. But now he’s our
sophomore veteran, so to speak.”

Darvish no longer
uses an interpreter to communicate with his teammates, although manager
Ron Washington and Maddux still prefer to use one with him. (Washington
insists he doesn’t use “choice” words with Darvish.)

I overheard Darvish
talking to a scout Tuesday using perfect English. And the fact that
only about 10 Japanese reporters are monitoring Darvish instead of the
50 from last season seems to have had a calming
influence.

“It was a three-ring circus last year, and
he was center stage,” Maddux said. “He wanted to blend in, but he just
couldn’t. This year, he’s blending in. He’s just one of the guys.”

Of course, it’s never easy for a potential ace to be
one of the guys. For the Rangers to have any chance at making a run at
the postseason, Darvish needs to eat a lot of innings. Washington
doesn’t think it’s out of the question Darvish could end up with 200-220
innings. And one of the reasons is the Rangers manager doesn’t think
Darvish will feel as much pressure to show off his full “menu” of
pitches. Washington wants Darvish to quickly identify the pitches that
are effective on a given day and commit to them.

On
Tuesday, he started No. 2 hitter Gordon Beckham with three consecutive
fastballs, two of which registered 96 mph. Then Beckham struck out on a
wicked 85-mph slider. White Sox slugger Adam Dunn worked the count full
on Darvish in the second inning, but Darvish froze him with an 82-mph
slider. It was a great sign that Darvish was working off his fastball a
lot in his two innings.

It was a welcome sight for a
Rangers team that remained winless in Cactus League after five games.
Darvish looked effortless in his first outing, and that’s a great sign
for a team that has a lot of question marks.

It’s
too early to call Darvish an ace, but he looked a lot like a No. 1
pitcher against the White Sox. And maybe that’s the idea when you shell
out $112 million for a player.