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.