Thursday, April 24, 2008

Darvish Watch 08: Episode 6

In his sixth start, Yu Darvish took the mound against the Orix Buffaloes for the first time in the 2008 season . The Darvish Watch campaign for a sub-1.00 season ERA is still on track with a string of lights out performances to begin the year. That story seemed to be slightly overshadowed by the news that super-rookie Sho Nakata has been mashing the ball for the Nippon Ham farm club and blasted a monster home run off Aussie Adrian Burnside. His attitude has been the major factor keeping him on the farm as he's had problems with lateness and oversleeping. His defense has also been heavily criticized by his minor league manager, although he now admits that if Nakata keeps hitting like he has (currently a 7 game hit streak and 7 of his last 14) it will be hard to keep him from the Fighters lineup for long.

On to the game....

Scrutiny of Darvish's 1st inning results is the first order of business here, as it is every week. Let's get right to it:

Tomotaka Sakaguchi (CF) Pop out to 3B
Arihito Muramatsu (LF) Fly out to LF
Tuffy Rhodes (DH) Pop out to LF

Well, whaddaya know? A clean, 1-2-3 first inning for Darvish. That generally is a great sign of things to come for the 21-year old righty. A strong first, more often than not, snowballs into a dominant performance for the young ace. How many in a row was he able to put away following his clean opening frame? None. Alex Cabrera, newly acquired this season by Orix, mashed a 3-2 fastball, belt high on the outside part of the plate, over the straightaway centerfield fence. Touche. 1-0 Orix.

Knowing Darvish as we do, it's no surprise that he settled down right away and proceeded to retire 10 of the next 11 batters, and 15 of the next 19 batters. One of those baserunners came on an error by catcher Shinji Takahashi, playing out of position at first base. The 8th inning proved to be the undoing for Darvish on this night, however. Alas. Kensuke Tanaka, playing second base for Nippon Ham, led off the 7th with a solo home run to take Darvish off the hook and knot the game at one apiece, but a barrage of hits greeted our hero in the 8th that led to a second run and a deficit for the Fighters. The inning in question started with an easy out and then went single, RBI double, walk, single, 3-6-1 double play. To his credit, Darvish worked out of further trouble by turning a much needed twin killing to end the threat.

The Fighters got the game back to a tie with a stunning 9th inning rally, and won it in the 10th with a walk off homer by Tomoyuki Oda, who entered the game in the 8th to pinch hit and play first. Darvish exited the game after the 9th, allowing reliever Hisashi Takeda to notch the victory. Still, he pitched 9 full innings, allowing 2 earned runs on 7 hits and 2 walks, striking out 9 in the process. Not his sharpest outing, but his ERA still sits below 1.00 at 0.69. If your shaky outings look like this, you know you're good.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Darvish Watch 08: Episode 5

To date, this season has been a remarkable collection of dominant innings for Yu Darvish, as he has only been scored upon in 1 of 34 innings pitched. His ERA entering the game against SoftBank was a phenomenal 0.53 and hitters just can't touch him at all. Still, SoftBank was the club that gave him some trouble a couple of weeks earlier and a bad first inning would be deadly. Hawks' leadoff man and shortstop Munenori Kawasaki was hit by a pitch to start the game against Darvish the last go around. What would he do in this contest?

Munenori Kawasaki (SS) Line drive base hit to left
Tadaashi Nakasawa (2B) Strikes out looking
Hiroshi Tsubahara (RF) Bloop single to left (throwing error on LF, run scores)
Nobuhiko Matsunaka (LF) Strikes out swinging
Hiroki Kokubo (DH) Ground out to pitcher

So, another shaky start for Darvish. There seems to be some reason to continue worrying about the trend that has become his trademark. Nothing earth-shattering occurred here, but the inability to work clean 1st innings on a regular basis is the Achilles heel for an otherwise unhittable man. In this case, an error cost Darvish an unearned run, but there were two hits scratched across by the Hawks and the hope for a sub-1.00 ERA will depend on getting the lone chink in his armor worked out.

The good news is that Darvish only allowed one more baserunner in working the complete game shutout. The eighth and ninth innings saw our ace retire 5 of the last 6 batters by strikeout and slam the door on the Hawks for good. All told, Darvish threw 103 pitches over 9, allowing three hits and no walks, striking out 10. His ERA now stands at a miniscule 0.42 and he has pitched 42 of 43 innings with no score. Uncanny.

Darvish Watch 08: Episode 4

So far so good for young Yu Darvish. Three starts and three wins for the Fighters have come as a result of dominating pitching by the 21-year old ace, only sullied by a difficult 7th inning in his previous start against the SoftBank Hawks. In consecutive games we've seen a little trouble for Darvish, much as we did in 2007, but to date none of the baserunners allowed has touched home plate. In our continuing scrutiny of the Darvish First, we look at the latest confrontation between Darvish and his Rakuten Golden Eagles' hitters.

Naoto Watanabe (SS) Flyout to Left
Yosuke Takasu (2B) Groundout to Second
Daisuke Kusano (3B) Groundout to First

Whaddaya know? A clean first inning. Things looked good for a dominating performance, as Darvish rarely gets started cleanly and falters late. The biggest challenge in this contest would be to avoid blinking first against the once might Hisashi Iwakuma. The Rakuten starter was once one of Japan's best starting pitchers, before regular arm problems robbed him of his health and heat. This will be a make or break season for Iwakuma, as he is still young, but needs to stay on the field all year to be worthy of consideration as a top flight pitcher.

Both pitchers cruised through the bulk of this contest with Darvish allowing only three baserunners through 7. Iwakuma allowed a single walk through 6, but lost command in the 7th, giving up a crucial sac fly to Julio Zuleta and handing Darvish a lead. You just know that our hero made that run hold up, and finished off yet another complete game shutout. Working the complete game, Darvish gave up 3 hits and lone walk on 95 pitches, striking out 6 in the process. A truly dominating performance in which the Fighters' ace threw less than 10 pitches per inning. Iwakuma may have lost the battle on this night, but can still win the war by pitching this well on a regular basis.

Darvish Watch 08: Episode 3

Unscored upon in 18 consecutive innings to open the year, Yu Darvish would face the SoftBank Hawks in his 3rd go around. Struggling with his control in the previous start, Darvish battled to keep his team in contention for the eventual win. The first inning watch continues as the ace of the Fighter's staff opposed Rick Guttormson, who threw a no-hitter in 2006 and was suspended for drug use in 2007 after testing positive for finasteride. Finasteride is a hair-growth product that is apparently used as a masking ageny, and Guttormson seems to have a nice, full head of hair. Hmmmmm.....

First batter, Hawks' shortstop Munenori Kawasaki found his way on base after being plunked by Darvish. Not an auspicious start, to say the least. The middle of the SoftBank lineup is very good and presents some problems with the speedy Kawasaki on the basepaths disturbing Darvish's concentration. Nothing would come of the leadoff runner, however, and Darvish never looked to be in any serious difficulty against the Hawks throughout most of the game. In fact, after the initial hit batsmen, Darvish only allowed a walk and a single through 6 innings. The single in the 6th frame was erased on a double play.

While Darvish cruised, Guttormson struggled. The Hawks starter allowed 4 earned runs over 6 innings and left the game on the short end of the score. Darvish seemed to let up a bit as he took the mound in the 7th with a comfortable lead, giving up a leadoff double, a bloop single to right, and an infield single to short, loading the bases with none out. Hawks third baseman Nobuhiro Matsuda then laced a line drive double to left field, scoring two and putting Darvish against the ropes for the first time this season. A 24 inning consecutive scoreless streak was snapped and suddenly the game seemed in doubt.

Alas, the Hawks went 1-2-3 following the big hit by Matsuda and Darvish stepped away with a lead intact. Narrowly averting disaster, the young ace's night was through. The bullpen closed out a big win for the Fighters, and allowed Darvish to sit out a few innings for the first time all year.

Darvish Watch 08: Episode 2

After a rousing first start, Darvish looked to build on his success against the intriguing Seibu Lions. The Lions struggled in 2007 after losing Daisuke Matsuzaka to the Boston Red Sox and face an even more imposing task in 2008 after seeing slugger Alex Cabrera and stalwart outfielder Kazuhiro Wada walk as free agents in the offseason. Darvish would oppose Seibu's young ace Hideaki Wakui on this occasion and all eyes were watching as one of the most attractive rivalries in the Pacific League unfolded.

The easy first inning of the opening start against Lotte was encouraging for Darvish fans, but a long string of success is perhaps the only thing that will ease the nerves built up over the course of the entire 2007 campaign. After retiring the first batter, Darvish allowed a double to centerfielder Shogo Akada. Would he allow this to rattle him and start a string of trouble? Not this time. Darvish retired the next two batters and went back to the dugout with a quick regrouping.

Still, this wasn't the sharpest outing for the 21-year old righty, as he hit a batter and allowed a follow up line drive to left for a single and some trouble in the 2nd. Again, he battled out of trouble. Unlike the first start of the season, this game had Darvish working out of the stretch on a regular basis. Wakui was equally shaky, but dueled the Nippon Ham ace effectively through 9 innings. The score was tied at zero until pinch hitter Shinji Takahashi delivered a walk off single in the bottom of the 10th handing Wakui the loss and Fighter's reliever Hisashi Takeda a victory after entering in the top of the inning.

Darvish managed to work 9 innings, allowing 7 hits, 4 walks, and a hit batsman on 132 pitches. He struck out 7, but came away with a no decision thanks to the equally impressive Wakui who worked one inning too many as it turned out. Still, this outing proved to be encouraging for Darvish fans as he battled through a lack of sharpness to hold the Lions at zero and gave his team a chance to win.

Darvish Watch 08: Episode 1

After an eventful offseason that saw Yu Darvish lead the Japanese national team to an impressive championship in the Asian Games, qualifying Japan for the Beijing Olympics, a new season is upon us with tremendous promise for the 21-year old ace of the Nippon Ham Fighters. There's not much left for Darvish to accomplish in Japan, after the 2006 Japan Series title, 2007 Sawamura Award, and international success to his credit. Some speculation about a post-season posting to the Major Leagues has been bandied about, as have tabloid stories about the New York Yankees' interest in Yu. All of that is a distraction from the regular season ahead and the prospect that Darvish could post a sub-1.00 ERA and a 20 win season, among other historical feats. He is far ahead of Daisuke Matsuzaka's trajectory at the same age and we really can't project a ceiling for his ability.

The first start for Darvish in 2008 came against the Chiba Lotte Marines and Bobby Valentine. The Marines are a solid offensive club with an interesting mix of power and speed, but rarely put everything together for long stretches. Darvish struggled a great deal during the first inning of starts in 2007, often succumbing to control problems and poorly timed walks. On a number of occasions last season, the young righty seemed to overthrow in the 1st, losing his grip on the count, the scoreboard, and his emotions. Innings 2 through 9 were lights out, but that 1st inning was his undoing far too often. How did he open the season?

In this contest, Darvish came out throwing darts and retired the side without any difficulty whatsoever. In fact, he retired the first 7 batters he faced with 4 strikeouts and proceeded to dominate 13 of his first 14 batters faced, before walking light hitting Shoichi Ohmatsu in the 5th. All in all, Darvish allowed 5 baserunners on 4 hits and a walk over 9 complete, fanning 10. The complete game shutout came on 124 effortless pitches and the Fighters opened the season with a win. A promising beginning for Darvish and his Hokkaido boys. Keep the line moving Yu and let's make some history in '08.