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: