Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Darvish Watch: Episode 15

An outstanding pitching matchup awaited on July 6th as the two best clubs in the Pacific faced off with Yu Darvish going for the Fighters and Shunsuke Watanabe on the hill for Lotte. Watanabe was the third wheel in the starting rotation for the WBC Japan team. He's a side-arming righty with decent control and a very difficult arm slot. A low scoring affair would seem to have been the safe bet prior to first pitch. Speaking of which, let's go over Darvish's first inning.

Tsuyoshi (TSUYOSHI) Nishioka (G4)
Daisuke Hayakawa (P5)
Kazuya Fukuura (G4)

Yes! Woo hoo!!! A 1-2-3 first inning at last. It's a miracle. That had to bode well for the tall righty to start this highly anticipated contest. Would trouble come in the second? A little trouble manifested as Darvish allowed a leadoff single to Zaburo followed by a plunking of Benny Agbayani. A little Whoudini work later and no harm done. In fact, after the second inning, Darvish didn't allow another baserunner. You heard me. Young Yu Darvish retired the final 23 batters he faced against Lotte and won thanks to a 6th inning 2-run bomb by the ever amazing Inaba. The final line for Nippon Ham's ace included a lone hit, a hit batsman, and 10 strikeouts. It was a dominating complete game shutout. Just what the doctor ordered to solidify the growing lead in the Pacific and put Darvish in the Sawamura hunt with Softbank Hawks starter Toshiya Sugiuchi and 22-year old Lotte sensation Yoshihisa Naruse. Youth prevails in the Pacific and the Fighters have the lead.

Darvish Watch: Episode 14

Yu Darvish versus the Orix Blue Wave seems like an unfair matchup at first glance. The rising ace of the Nippon Ham Fighters against the aging and streaky boys from Orix...There's always that first inning thing though. Let's get right to it.

Keiichi Hirano (F8)
Arihito Muramatsu (groundball single to 1B)
Greg LaRocca (G6)
Tuffy Rhodes (looking K)

Well, Darvish passed the first test of the game. He survived the first inning unscathed. In fact, young Darvish retired nine consecutive batters after the Muramatsu single. The fourth inning began with a HBP for Muramatsu and a walk by LaRocca, but Darvish put those mistakes behind him quickly and retired the next 12 batters in order. Stupendous. In the 6th inning the Fighters scratched across a run on a leadoff double by Morimoto and an RBI single by the ever amazing Inaba. 1-0 would stand until the 8th inning.

Darvish completed his 12-in-a-row domination by retiring the last batter of the 7th. He was clearly gassed at this point, but Trey Hillman elected to stick with his big man. Base hit for the pinch hitting Kimoto. Catcher Takeshi Hidaka grounded out but Hirano took advantage of a tiring Darvish by lining a single to right field. Trouble was officially a-brewin'. Hillman stuck with Yu again, and I sat in my chair wondering if this was really happening. You just know when a pitcher is gassed. Everyone watching had to know it. Velocity was down, pace slowed, and good wood met each successive ball. Time to change.

No change came and the Fighters paid. RBI ground ball to short. Game tied. Hit by pitch. Bases clearing double for Tuffy Rhodes, which tallied his 1000th career RBI and prompted a fist pump from on top of second base. The double was a ringing shot off the wall that could easily have gone out. Still Darvish remained. Line drive single to center by first baseman Kitagawa. Darvish removed.

The Fighters went on to lose the game by a final score of 4-1. Questionable managing led to the Fighters demise on this night. You have to wonder if the young ace's reputation for complete games is getting the better of him with respect to pace and fatigue. The point is now moot as the Fighters dropped a game to Orix. The good news is that the Nippon Ham boys have put their miserable last place days of April behind them and now sit atop the Pacific. Darvish will have another night soon....

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Darvish Watch: Episode 13

I'm going to cut and paste the intro to Darvish Watch: Episode 12 because it's appropriate once again this time around. Here you go:

"Greetings again Darvish Watch fans. I'd like to start today with a little quiz. What is the key to a Yu Darvish victory in 2007? Answer: a good first inning. We've followed this exciting young pitcher's ascent into the lofty heights of pitching royalty in Japan, pitching stellar complete games, striking out batters in the double digits, and looking the part of the matinee idol while doing it. What he hasn't done much is come out guns blazing in the first inning to retire the side cleanly."

Do you remember that? Good. Here's a rundown of Darvish's first inning from June 23rd against Hanshin.

Takahiro Shouda - WALK
Norihiro Akahoshi - DOUBLE TO RIGHT
Tomoaki Kanemoto - 3 RUN HOME RUN
Makoto Imaoka - SWINGING K
Takashi Toritani - WALK
Akihiro Yano - 4-6-3 DOUBLE PLAY

Just like that 4-0 Hanshin. I'll let you in on a little secret. The final score of this game was 6-4 Nippon Ham in 11 innings. Once again the only damage to Yu Darvish was a first inning meltdown. I promise you that I will provide a recap soon with numbers from his first innings compared with the numbers from all other innings pitched. It will be a stark contrast, and will go a long way to showing why Darvish has room to grow. Why does this keep happening? I have a theory.

I believe that Darvish is both immature and overconfident at times. He is so dominant that he has fallen for his own image a bit. This year, after winning the Japan Series and the Konami Asia Cup, Darvish appeared with dyed brown hair and a little swagger on the mound. His numbers show that he has earned that swagger, but I think it manifests itself negatively in the first inning. He's too pumped up and too sure of himself. His focus is poor and he overthrows. Most of the time, the meltdowns are a simple matter of a hafl centimeter here and a quarter of a centimeter there. His control is just off enough that he falls behind, walks the leadoff man, and then gets into trouble with good professional hitters waiting on a straight fastball. Just like that a few runs are on the board. If I were his manager, I'd make him throw 2 simulated innings prior to the next start to wear him out just a bit. Work him in the pen and then bring him out a little winded.

Better focus comes with each successive inning, and Darvish managed to go the rest of the game allowing 6 baserunners over 8 innings. The pen took over in the 10th, and got the win in the 11th. Darvish pitched to 2 batters over the minimum from the 3rd inning until the end of the 9th. He struck out 11 Tigers on the day, but was a victim of another rocky start. It's the second consecutive game that he's walked 5 batters and control seems to have eluded the young ace. We'll be watching again this weekend to see if he can conquer the demons that have plagued him at the start of ballgames. Click below to enlarge current stats:

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Darvish Watch: Episode 12

Greetings again Darvish Watch fans. I'd like to start today with a little quiz. What is the key to a Yu Darvish victory in 2007? Answer: a good first inning. We've followed this exciting young pitcher's ascent into the lofty heights of pitching royalty in Japan, pitching stellar complete games, striking out batters in the double digits, and looking the part of the matinee idol while doing it. What he hasn't done much is come out guns blazing in the first inning to retire the side cleanly. In recent weeks, I've given you the lowdown on Darvish's first innings, batter by batter, to illustrate his struggles. I'll do the same today.

Hirokazu Ibata (pop out to 2nd)
Hidenori Kuramoto (strike out - runner advances to 1st on passed ball)
Masahiko Morino (walk)
Kosuke Fukudome (RBI double to center)
Kazuki Inoue (walk)
Koji Nakamura (fly out to right)
Motonobu Tanishige (bases loaded RBI walk)
Michihisa Sawai (looking K)

Yes, a little bad luck led to the first baserunner, but I have to tell you that Darvish was straight awful for the better part of the early innings. He had nothing on any of his pitches and very little control. The three walks in this inning are enough to illustrate that, and the final walk to Tanishige that accounted for the second run came on four pitches, none of which was close. Tanishige is a .242 hitter with a .315 OBP and a grand total of 8 extra base hits in 191 plate appearances. You cannot walk that kind of hitter, let alone force in a run on four pitches.

I'll add to the severity of this situation by telling you that the Chunichi starter was Kenshin Kawakami, former Rookie of the Year(1998), Sawamura Award winner(2004), and currently the highest paid pitcher in Japan. In this kind of matchup, especially in conservative Japanese strategic settings, a 2-0 lead early could spell curtains. Most teams don't have the big guns to mount more than a single decent rally against a top starter. Nippon Ham is just such a team. Darvish's margin of error is so thin that these first inning ordeals make it very hard to regroup. This was the case in this contest, as Kawakami dominated the Fighters from the very start, allowing only 3 baserunners through the first 5 innings, two of whom came in the 1st, ironically.

Darvish, meanwhile, never got it going completely, giving up another run in the 4th inning after recording the first two outs quickly. He gave up a hit, hit a batter, and then allowed a little roller to second base to score the runner on an infield single. It was a bit of hard luck for the young ace, but he did allow the hit batsman after all. Nippon Ham had it's one shining moment, where there was some hope. Kawakami appeared to tire just a bit in the 7th as he gave up a leadoff hit followed by a 2 run blast to catcher Shinji Takahashi. After walking the very next batter, Nippon Ham played things conservatively, sac bunting for the first out. Chunichi manager Ochiai went to the pen, who made things a little more interesting, but runners were left stranded, the score 3-2 Dragons.

That's where the game ended. Darvish went the full nine innings, allowing only 5 hits, but he walked 5 batters and hit another. That was his undoing. Considering his early problems, the 20-year old righty only allowed 2 batters over the minimum after the 4th inning. He was never sharp, and he never looked like the world class Darvish that we have come to know, but on an off night he managed to go nine, allowing only 3 runs, striking out 8. Tough loss. Click below for updated stats:

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Darvish Watch: Episode 11

Interleague play continues in Japan as the Nippon Ham Fighters, now firmly in second place in the Pacific, took on the Yakult Swallows and All World outfielder Norichika Aoki. The Fighters have used a strong run prior to interleague, and a ridiculous 12-0 record against the Central to establish themselves as the hottest team in the sport. 14 consecutive wins to be exact! Darvish would look to continue Nippon Ham's string of victories, and their unblemished mark in interleague, on this steamy Saturday evening.

Continuing the trend of sluggish starts this season, Darvish gave up a scorching leadoff double to Aoki on a 1 and 1 cutter that was clocked at 89, but stayed a little too high and wasn't quite outside enough. Darvish then needed 8 pitches to fan Tanaka on a 91 mph straight fastball that the right fielder couldn't quite catch up to. After easily retiring Alex Ramirez, the Nippon Ham ace decided to double up on the "shuuto" to Aaron Guiel and looked to have the inning in the books until an error on the second baseman cost him the runner on base and a chance at an easy escape. 1-0 Yakult.

In the bottom of the 2nd inning, Darvish led off by issuing a walk. Fortunately, Japanese baseball clubs love to sac bunt and Darvish managed to retire the remaining two batter easily, stranding the runner at second. What if? We'll never know.

From the 3rd inning through the last out of the 9th, the young ace of the Fighters allowed 3 baserunners. A double, a home run to Alex Ramirez, and a single walk was all she wrote for Yakult. Darvish briefly had the lead after his teammates put 2 on the board in the top of the 6th inning, but Ramirez' solo shot evened the score and created a marathon of a game that didn't end until Yakult's 20-year veteran Ken Suzuki hit a pinch hit, walk off home run off Nippon Ham reliever Hisashi Takeda of the 1.85 ERA in 2007.

Suzuki (pictured at left and right) has played in a total of 122 games since the start of the 2005 season with 309 at bats and a combined .240 average and 8 home runs. The hit was his first of the 2007 season in 11 total at bats. Congratulations Ken. I suppose Trey Hillman may wish he'd stuck with Darvish for one more inning, as his ace had only thrown 124 pitches to that point, and we all know that means he has at least one more inning in him.

Norichika Aoki went 1 for 3 with a double and a run scored. He also worked a walk against Darvish, and saw his batting average drop to .350 on the year. Maybe he'll have better luck tomorrow. ;)

So, Nippon Ham's unblemished record in interleague is no more. Darvish did everything he had to do to get the win, but you can't win them all. 9 IP, 3 hits, 2 walks, 11 strikeouts, one earned run. Click below for updated stats:

Darvish Watch: Episode 10

While the elements conspired to prevent Yu Darvish from punishing the Yokohama Bay Stars, the struggling Hanshin Tigers were not so lucky. After consecutive days of rained out baseball against the Yokohama boys, including one aborted game after one inning, Trey Hillman gave Darvish the day off. After a night's sleep, Darvish took the hill dry and fired up to face the Hanshin club.

A bad offensive club is just what the doctor ordered for a pitcher who has struggled to get off to good starts in recent days. A 1-2-3 first was easy to predict against these toothless Tigers, but what we imagine and what happens are often very different things. Not on this day. 1-2-3 went the Tigers against Darvish, and in fact the first 7 Hanshin batters went back to the bench with their bats in their hands on this evening in June. After walking the second batter of the 3rd inning, young Yu Darvish close the door on any further danger. The top of the 4th inning saw one time Waseda University shortstop, and the would be saviour of the Hanshin franchise, go deep against Darvish in one of the few bright moments of his 4 year pro career. That player is Takashi Toritani, who once was considered a possibility to be drafted and traded to a Major League team (perhaps the Yankees), but went to Hanshin instead. Nothing he has done in his time with the Tigers has lived up to the huge billing he received as an amateur, but he now has a home run against the best pitcher on this side of the Pacific. Congratulations.

Following the home run to Toritani, Darvish allowed 2 baserunners over the remaining 5 innings he pitched, both erased on double plays. With an 8-1 lead, Trey Hillman relieved Darvish after the 8th inning, in a move that still puzzles me to this day. Darvish is Mr. Complete Game, and was cruising. The Nippon Ham relief core came in and needed 3 pitchers to get 3 outs, giving up 4 runs in the process. It wasn't the pen's finest hour, but Darvish got the win and Nippon Ham continues to climb the standings on their way toward first place. Remarkable after their horrendous start. Here are Darvish's updated stats on the season (click to enlarge):

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Darvish Watch: Episode 10 (false start)

After being rained out the night before, Darvish and the Nippon Ham Fighters looked to take the field against the Yokohama Bay Stars in a continuation of the inter-league play going on across Japan. The Fighters have posted a Japan-best 6-0 record in interleague and have moved up nicely in the Pacific standings. On the hill for Yokohama was 26 year veteran, Kimiyasu Kudo. The game began after a 41 minute rain delay, although why they started to play is tough to figure. Kudo threw his first pitch amidst a driving and unrelenting rain before a small crowd of brave, umbrella wielding loyalists. The 44-year old gave up hits to three of the first four batters and allowed Nippon Ham to take a 1 run lead. Lord knows why they then asked Darvish to take the field, when the rain had not only continued, but also increased in intensity.

Darvish didn't complain, although he should have had a long conversation with the crew chief. An injury in a game like this would have been a tragedy. Instead, the young man induced a weak groundball back to the pitcher to retire the leadoff man, and then proceeded to blow away batters 2 and 3 with nasty heat. He needed only 10 pitches to retire the side 1-2-3, but jogged off the field soaked to the bone, water pouring off his drenched cap and dripping wildly off his shaggy hair. Game over.

The umps finally got it right by calling the game, but why did it take them so long? How is it fair to the players or the fans in that situation? Yokohama owes everyone an apology, as do the umpires on this night. None of the statistics count from this aborted mess, so we'll have to wait for the next night for a look at Yu Darvish. Will the rains hold up?

Darvish Watch: Episode 9

A bounce back game seemed in order for young Yu Darvish, coming off a humiliating performance against the Japan-top SoftBank Hawks. His 6 consecutive complete game streak had been broken and a new string of successes perhaps lied ahead. What would the Fighters do against the Central-top Yomiuri Giants in this inter-league matchup? Would Darvish's 1st inning struggles continue, or would he show a bit sharper control? Outside the Hawks, the 2 through 6 of the Giants has to be the most feared bunch of hitters in Japan right now.

Here's the 1st inning for you:

Takahashi: single past 3rd
Tani: foul tip strikeout (notice he was swinging)
Ogasawara: RBI double
Lee: RBI ground out to 1st
Nioka: ground out to 3rd

The Giants are one of the few teams to put a real hitter in the #2 hole. Part of that has to do with the use of a pitcher in the lineup in the Central, but it should probably be the rule rather than the exception in both leagues. Darvish didn't walk or hit anyone, but the Giants probably had studied the control problems and were sitting on anything around the plate. When a pitcher exhibits control problems in certain situations, hitters are smart enough to know that he will be trying to correct those problems with fastballs and stuff located in the strike zone. Knowing that is enough to get a slight advantage, especially if it's the 1st inning.

Darvish had surrendered a 2-0 lead before his team had even come to bat. Fortunately, on this day the Fighters lived up to their namesake and picked up their struggling ace. 4 runs in the bottom of the 1st on a two run triple by outfielder Eichi Koyano, and a 2 run shot by the very next batter, 22-year old Yukio Tanaka. Back in business.

Over the remaining 8 innings both teams were held scoreless. The Giants only managed 4 hits and no other baserunners over that span, while Giants rookie starter Norihito Kaneto continued his brilliant 2007 with 2 hits and a walk over 8. He went 1-2-3 in the final 4 frames of the contest, but his offense couldn't get anything going against Yu Darvish. Darvish finished his comnplete game victory with only 109 pitches in the books, and struck out 5 against no walks. He had it all working in holding down one of the best lineups in the sport, and helped the Fighters earn a two game sweep of the Giants to move up in the Pacific standings. Click below for updated stats:

Darvish Watch: Episode 8

Could our hero make it to 7 consecutive complete games against the Pacific leading SoftBank Hawks? To this point in the season, Yu Darvish has been nothing short of miraculous for the Fighters and is poised as a 20-year old terminator for whatever team puts him on the field, be it Nippon Ham or the Japanese national team he figures to lead in the future. SoftBank sports a very tough 3-4-5 punch of Tamura, Matsunaka, and Kokubo who could put the fear of Babe Ruth in any opposing pitcher's heart. What about Darvish? Surely he is above such timidity.....

In the last post, I mentioned that Darvish has struggled with his command in the first inning of several starts this season. Orix failed to play their leadoff success into runs by foolishly wasting an out with a typically Japanese sacrifice. What would SoftBank find before them on this day? Here's a rundown of the first inning, batter by batter:

Honda: walk
Morimoto: sac to catcher (there it is...ugh)
Tamura: RBI double
Matsunaka: walk
Kokubo: RBI double
Shibahara: sac fly
Honma: walk
Hyzdu: fly out to center

When you sport a 3-4-5 like SoftBank you can get away with the sac bunt. I still don't understand why anyone would put a 500-ish OPS guy in the #2 hole as a designated sac bunter. Morimoto did his job, but what a stupid job it is. Had SoftBank put Tamura, Matsunaka, and Kokubo at the 2-3-4, they might have extended that inning even further. As it is, Darvish threw a million pitches and gave up 3 early runs. It didn't get much better for the young ace.

Darvish gave up a leadoff hit up the middle in the 2nd before working out of trouble by retiring the next 3 batters in order. The third inning was a little more adventurous as Darvish issued a leadoff walk, much to Trey Hillman's chagrin, and then promptly recorded two outs. On the verge of escaping once again, Darvish gave up two singles to the left side which simply found holes in the defense. He got catcher Yamazaki looking to end the threat with the bases loaded. Here's where it gets interesting.

Trey Hillman, after watching his ace struggle with command and confidence on the mound, decides to relieve him after allowing back to back walks to open the 4th inning. Darvish had thrown 83 unimpressive pitches over 3+ innings and looked out of it. As he strode from the mound to the dugout, Darvish was visibly humiliated and annoyed. He controlled his reaction, but he was clearly embarrassed and extremely angry. I would have to guess that he was first angry at himself, but not without also being infuriated by Hillman's choice to remove him at that point in the game. At the time, I also felt the hook was premature. Darvish wasn't on his game and he was often not close to the strike zone, but he had managed to work his way out of huge trouble to that point, only allowing 3 runs. If a pitcher is your ace, and you hope he will have your trust going forward, you have to let him try to get out of a few early jams. The Fighters had scratched across 2 runs at that point and the score was only 3-2. Surely you have to build your best pitcher up to the point where he will get out of his funk by buckling down and fighting through it.

I just can't see many managers going out there to relieve Clemens, Pedro, Maddux, Santana, Oswalt, or a host of other top pitchers in the 4th inning, with the game 3-2. Darvish helped the Fighters win their first Japan Series less than a year ago, and I think has earned the right to toss a stinker without a quick hook. I believe the young man thought so as well, although he'd never admit it. Nevertheless, the game continued without Darvish and we saw the Nippon Ham pen give up 5 runs in the fifth inning to lose the game 8-2. Darvish could have done that.

And so ends the complete game string at 6. Maybe the next game will see better results for the Fighters top man on the mound. Click below for updated stats:

Darvish Watch: Episode 7

Following a stellar outing against Lotte on April 26th, young Yu Darvish was looking to put together his 6th consecutive complete game as he took on the lowly Orix Buffaloes. Since falling victim to a rain shortened season opener, Darvish has pitched every inning of each of his starts and has looked completely dominant in all but a few of those frames. Orix' offense didn't figure to stand much of a chance against the tall ace of the Fighters.

Most of Darvish's struggles in 2007 have come in the first inning when he's battled his command. On several occasions, he has missed the plate by a few centimeters here and there and has gotten himself in trouble by nibbling a bit too much. Nibbling is not his profile, as Darvish almost always shows confidence beyond what the normal 20-year old should rightly possess. The first batter to step to the plate in this contest, Hiroaki Ohnishi, was a victim of Darvish's lack of first inning command when he was grazed across the letters by a fastball offering that didn't stay in the zone enough. Knowing that Darvish is likely to be best hit in the 1st inning, a smart manager would take a few pitches and let his #2 and 3 men attempt to capitalize on the good fortune of an early base runner. Anyway, a manager who understands run expectancy would certainly do so. In Japan, when facing an opposing ace, the protocol is to sacrifice the runner to second without fail. That is precisely what Mitsunaka Goto, he of the Mendoza line average, did on this particular occasion. I would question the logic of hitting a guy with a 500-ish OPS in the #2 slot, if I didn't know that the Japanese play for the sac bunt.

No runs came of the leadoff baserunner, and Orix would never threaten again. Darvish locked in and allowed 3 hits for the remainder of the game. In the 9th inning, looking for the complete game shutout, Darvish faced outstanding foreign import Greg LaRocca who took him yard for a solo shot that broke up the bid for a cool zero in the runs column. With the lead trimmed to 3-1, Darvish fanned 2 of the remaining 3 batters to take his strikeout tally to 7 and quiet the would be rally before it started. Another complete game and another win for the suddenly awakened Nippon Ham Fighters. Click below for a look at Darvish's updated stat line:

Monday, April 30, 2007

Darvish Watch: Episode 6

After the last outing, Darvish had to be motivated for a better start against Lotte. A lack of control early ended up costing the young ace the game, as he pitched every bit the ace that he is the remaining 8 innings. Darvish has managed to go all 9 innings in his 4 starts after the rain-shortened opening game, and has shown the ability to keep his focus throughout most of the contests so far, something he struggled with in his first year and a half as a professional.

Lotte came into the April 26th affair in first place in the Pacific with the champion Fighters dragging far behind in last. Nothing has gone right for Nippon Ham so far this season, and it appears as though the offense can't make due without the 2006 MVP Ogasawara and iconic, if mediocre, Shinjo. The pitching should be better than it has performed, and you can really pin the struggles on the loss of Hideki Okajima, although his 2007 season in Boston shows how much the Fighters may eventually miss him. How would Darvish fair?

In contrast to the shaky 1st inning of a game earlier, Yu got the Marines to go 1-2-3 with a looking K sandwiched by two groundouts to the left side. A leadoff triple by Shinjo replacement Hichyori Morimoto was eventually plated by the lone offensive bright spot for Nippon Ham in 2007, Atsunori Inaba. 1-0 Nippon Ham early.

Darvish was brilliant. He finished the game going 1-2-3 in seven of the nine innings, earning a complete game shutout. The only baserunners for Bobby V's Lotte club were a walk by #2 man Daisuke Hayakawa, a walk and a single by Benny Agbayani, and a single for .200 hitting DH, Tasuku Hashimoto. 4 baserunners over 9 complete in a 1-0 shutout against the best team in the league. It's not hard to understand why people are so high on this young player. I like to remind people as often as possible that Yu Darvish doesn't turn 21 until August 16th. Manager Trey Hillman's quotes about Darvish being better than Daisuke Matsuzaka at the same age are not only looking better and better all the time, but the physical tools that the Fighters' ace possesses are much better as well. The stamina and power that Darvish should develop over time may help to project him as the better player. That's frightening considering my high opinion of the Red Sox newest starter. More to come as our hero looks to extend the string of complete games, and master the control of his improving arsenal. Click below to enlarge his updated game log and stat line.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Darvish Watch: Episode 5

This outing would be a very nice test for the emerging ace of Japan, as the SoftBank Hawks are in my estimation the most talented bunch of ballplayers on this side of the Pacific. You wouldn't know it by their .500 record, but it's a long season. At least they hope so, and so do the Nippon Ham Fighters who have gone from the penthouse to the basement in a few months time. Darvish is the key to their chances for the postseason in 2007. How would he fare?

The first inning of this start went like this:

Omura: single to center
Honda: walk
Tamura: walk
Matsunaka: strikes out with the bases loaded
(Omura scores on a wild pitch, 1-0 SoftBank)
Kokubo: 3-run homer (7)
Shibahara: ground out to short
Buchanan: single to left
Honma: walk
Tanoue: strike out

A 4-run first inning saw Darvish on the ropes. It wasn't so much that he was serving up meatballs, but rather that he couldn't find the plate. The velocity was there. The movement was there. His mechanics looked good. He was squeezed on a pitch or two, but he was just barely missing on everything. If you look at this inning, you'd think that Kyle Farnsworth, Daniel Cabrera, or Ambiorix Burgos was on the hill, but in fact the pitches were not all over the place. Darvish's touch was just off enough that the location was a few centimeters outside or low. He got himself into real trouble with the bases loaded, nobody out, situation right off the bat and had Nobuhiko Matsunaka (a former Triple Crown winner) staring him down from the left side of the plate. Striking him out was huge, but the first run crossed the plate on a wild pitch. Aside from the continued problems late in the inning, the at bat to Kokubo was destined to be. He fell behind, and Kokubo is playing the role of Alex Rodriguez early in 2007. A straight fastball down the middle was supposed to ride in on the third baseman, but didn't. It rode it's way all the way out to the left field seats.

The game looked to be a lost cause with the anemic offense that Nippon Ham is putting on the field this season. They've currently hit a Pacific League low 12 homers and scored a similarly dismal 77 runs over 23 games. For those of you counting, 77 runs over 23 games means a per game average of 3.35 runs scored. The pitching has given up 4 runs a game, which isn't awful, but you've got yourself a very bad formula for success. Darvish did his best to keep the team in the game. After the 1st inning, he proceeded to retire the next 6 batters in a row, including three strikeouts. Leading off the 4th inning, Darvish hit designated hitter Buchanan, but continued his march by putting away nine consecutive. In fact, if you exclude the 1st inning from this game, Darvish allowed two hits, hit a batter, and struck out 8 over eight innings of shut out baseball.

Nippon Ham would scratch across two runs, but the game was lost when Kokubo launched his big fly in the first inning. Darvish was brilliant, mixing up fastballs with tremendous movement, with a nice curve, and a biting slider. He was unhittable. Unlike the Iceman, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Japan's new ace is a rock star with a little smile, piercing eyes, and a relaxed gait on the mound. His dyed-brown hair looks like flickering flames under his hat, and he has "it" out there. It was too bad to see him struggle in the first inning, but the rest of the game showed why some circles believe he could eventually surpass Matsuzaka's astounding ability. I thought that was a stretch when I first heard it, even though I thought enough of him to start this blog, but I'm coming around. He's for real. Let's hope he gets a win the next time out.

CG, 9 IP, 5 hits, 3 walks, 1 HBP, 4 ER, 10 K

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Darvish Watch: Episode 4

This season has seen an explosion from Yu Darvish, with back-to-back 14 strikeout performances and a newfound confidence on the mound. He just looks different. His body is more mature, and muscular. His stare from the mound is more intense. His leg drive and follow through are more sharp and assertive. It stands to reason that the lowly Rakuten Eagles would stand no chance against the dashing ace pitcher of Nippon Ham.

The first inning saw a two out single by left fielder Koichi Isobe, followed by an inning ending strikeout of cleanup man Jose Fernandez. A leadoff walk in the second was erased on a double play ball to short and another strikeout. A two out single in the third was erased on a pop out to catcher. The fourth inning saw Darvish in about as much trouble as he would gave all day, as two singles had the Eagles on the board first with a 1-0 lead, but the bleeding stopped there with another double play.

Darvish cruised from the fourth inning on, striking out the side in the fifth and sitting down the Rakuten batters in order 1-2-3 in both the sixth and seventh. Meanwhile, a two run bottom of the fifth had given the Fighters' ace a slim lead to work with and he made it count. From the RBI single he gave up in the fifth inning, Darvish retired 15 of the final 16 batters to face him, including 6 strikeouts. Nippon Ham's offense shut the door with a 4 run outburst in the bottom of the 8th against Rakuten reliever Matsumoto. In the end, it was a one-sided affair that was only competitive if you believed that the boys from Tohoku ever stood a chance in the first place, which I didn't.

Darvish went all 9 innings for the third consecutive start, throwing 114 pitches. That's a per inning average of 12.7 pitches, and a dominating tally. He allowed 5 hits and walked one, striking out 9. Darvish is now 2-0 on the season with a 2.18 ERA and some very impressive ratios. Click below to enlarge the game log:

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Darvish Watch: Episode 3

Could Yu Darvish break the schneid and post a win in his third time out? He would have to be his very best against the team I'm picking to win the whole enchilada this season, SoftBank. The Hawks sent to the mound Kazumi Saito in an attempt to nullify the Nippon Ham advantage. Saito has become the heir apparent to the Sawamura Award in Japan, having narrowly edged Matsuzaka in most statistical categories last season. He is a fine pitcher with good size and a deceptive delivery, but I have always felt that he is lacking something, despite the great numbers. He pitches effectively down in the zone with both his fastball and nasty fork. His curve is sometimes a difficult pitch for batters to recognize. The main drawback to Saito's repertoire, in my opinion, is the lack of velocity. He generally pitches in the 88-89 mph range with the low fastball and then drops the velocity with a hammer of a forkball. It looks just like the low fastball, but it dies a horrible death along with the batters that can't lay off.

Darvish and Saito are a contrast in images. Saito looks as if he has a perpetual chip on his shoulder about something, while Darvish sports dyed-brown idol-esque hair, a tan, and a very laid back expression. Both are ace pitchers, and this was a very good game.

Saito started off very rocky, allowing 3 runs in the top of the first to Nippon Ham, handing over a great cushion for the young Fighters #1 starter. Saito was angry with himself, and knew the kind of bind he'd worked for himself, as Darvish wouldn't surrender much, even to the stacked Hawks' lineup. A series of hits in the bottom of the first, stole back one of the runs from Nippon Ham and it looked as though the SoftBank boys might get more, but it wasn't to be. Darvish went 1-2-3 in five of the final eight innings, including three swinging strikeouts to retire the side in the 7th. Ten of the last fifteen outs he recorded were of the strikeout variety on his way to a back-to-back 14 K outing. SoftBank managed to threaten again in the 8th inning, scoring a run on a couple of hits and a ground out, but the pressure didn't get to our hero and he ended the inning with a strong performance against the heart of the Hawks' order.

Finally a win. The final tally for Darvish was 9 innings complete, 5 hits, 2 walks, 2 earned runs, and 14 strikeouts. The season has jumped off to a fast start for the 20-year old and we'll be ready for his next outing in just a week. Come back for more, Darvish fans.

Darvish Watch: Episode 2

After a disappointing rain-soaked tie in the season opener, Nippon Ham and Yu Darvish were looking to bounce back against the Matsuzaka-less Seibu Lions in the home opener. The entrances given to the players at Sapporo Dome are a bit like a pro wrestling affair, since the days of Shinjo began in Hokkaido, and Darvish was brought to the field in a stretch limo of some kind. The Lions gave Nippon Ham a good run for its money all season last year, but figure to struggle to duplicate that success minus their own #1 guy. Darvish would be matched up opposite rookie right hander Takayuki Kishi (23), who features a 95 mph fastball to go with a big slider. Kishi graduated from Tohoku Gakuin University last year and was the Lions first selection in the amateur draft. There are very high hopes for him in the wake of the Matsuzaka posting and he didn't disappoint.

Kishi was able to match Darvish for 7 innings, allowing 4 hits and two walks, striking out 7 Fighters. He left the ballgame ahead 2-0 as his team was able to score a run in each the 3rd and the 4th innings. The run in the third was an unearned blotch on Darvish's record as shortstop Makoto Kaneko booted a ball he should have had, allowing a runner to score. The fourth inning saw long time slugger and follicley-challenged Kazuhiro Wada hit a home run to left center field. If not for a bottom of the 9th rally by the Fighters, Darvish would have taken the hard luck loss. Thankfully for the 20-year old ace, the Nippon Ham boys sent 7 men to the plate against Seibu closer Chikara "Power" Onodera, stringing together a number of hits to tie the game at 2.

Darvish was through for the day, having gone the full 9 innings allowing 7 hits and 3 walks against 14 strikeouts. The score remained tied 2-2, concluding in a draw after the regulation 12 innings. Once again Darvish had led his team to a dead end finish. I don't care for the tie in baseball, but it doesn't matter what I think. Two games, two ties. Will Darvish go for three as he takes on the SoftBank Hawks on April 7th? You'll have to wait and see....

Darvish Watch: Episode 1

A grand opening day in Chiba Prefecture, Japan saw the Japan Champion Nippon Ham Fighters and ace Yu Darvish taking on 2005 champion Lotte and everyone's favorite mustachio, Bobby Valentine. I kid about the "grand" opening day, as the weather was simply awful to start the 2007 campaign and both teams struggled through the rain to give the fans their new season.

Darvish took the mound against possible 2007 MLB free agent defector Naoyuki Shimizu. The first few innings looked a lot like the first game of the season as batters hacked and swung and generally looked unable to get anything done at the plate. Shimizu recorded 5 swinging strikeouts in his first 6 outs, while Darvish managed to go 1-2-3 over the first three frames. Nippon Ham managed to scratch across 2 runs in the third on a combination of walks and timely hits by second baseman Kensuke Tanaka and first baseman Kuniyuki Kimoto. Darvish continued to cruise, retiring 15 of 17 batters through 5 complete. Meanwhile, the 6th inning saw two more Nippon Ham runs added to the tally, making the game 4-0 in the now driving rain.

It was clear that the game needed to be stopped, but the home team was afforded the opportunity at one last round of at bats. They took advantage as Darvish was unable to get his pitches located. The conditions were not appropriate for play, but the game went on. Single to center, fly out to center, infield single in front of the pitcher, fly out to right, walk, grand slam, game tied at 4. That's where this game ended. It seems a bit unfair to Yu Darvish to miss a win, and inflate his ERA this way, but that's the Japanese game. Rain is not a cause for immediate delay or postponement and something like this can happen. Chalk it up to gremlins. Let's hope that the next start for the young ace is in better conditions in the Sapporo Dome. Wink, wink.

2007 is the Year of Darvish

A little late, but better late than never. The Year of Darvish has begun. With the departure of Daisuke Matsuzaka to the Major Leagues, Japan is in search of a new "face". A new ace. That front man could be 20-year old Yu Darvish.

Coming off a second season in the professional ranks in which he won his last 10 decisions on his way to a Pacific League title, Japan Series championship, and finally a title at the Asia Games, the young right hander is poised to break out. Looking at his final stats from the 2006 campaign, it's not readily evident that Darvish is set to be Japan's ace, but watching him pitch in the most important games of the year, one had to marvel at how far he's come in such a short time. The poise and maturity that he displayed in becoming a leader on the Nippon Ham ball club did not go unnoticed by the fans of the sport here in Japan.

The ratios are nothing to get excited about, especially the K/BB mark of 1.80, which illustrates the biggest problem with the young man's game. He features a fastball in the low to mid 90s, which he can locate in all the zones. His slider and curve are both plus pitches, but he can't always put them in a good spot. While the fastball is live, the breaking pitches are occasionally wild. When he's missing the breaking stuff, he gives up walks. If he relies too heavily on the fastball to make up for his poor control with the offspeed pitches, he gets hit. Once Darvish is consistently able to hit his spots and throw strikes with the breaking balls, he will be on top of the world. He's that good. Recently, Trey Hillman said that he believed that Darvish is ahead of where Matsuzaka was at 20. He thinks Darvish may one day be better than the Red Sox new ace. I don't completely agree with that, although I think he would make a fine #1 pitcher in the Majors too, given a bit more refinement and experience.

In the meantime, let's sit back and enjoy the ride. The Year of Darvish has begun.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Saga Continues

If you are arriving here wondering where the coverage went, I'm sad to say 2006 was interrupted by a lot of busy things. Yu Darvish was never interrupted and in fact went on to great things including an NPB Championship and the title at the Asian Games. He's poised to lead the rotation in 2007 and could be one of the biggest stories in baseball as the season progresses. Fear not, a 2006 recap and 2007 preview will be out soon. Don't go away....