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

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