February 26, 2013

Yu Darvish makes his pitch for ace status

The Japanese import shows the right stuff in his first spring training appearance for the Texas Rangers.

As an MLB rookie last season, give him credit.

Yu done good.

And this spring here in Surprise, it’s certainly different for Mr. Darvish. Much different, and based on a variety of camp voices, different in a positive kind of way.

“Yu has better hair this spring,” said Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux, who was maybe joking, or maybe not. Maddux, an old-school baseball man, seemed to prefer Darvish’s current shorter hairstyle, as opposed to the longer locks with the gold streaks of a year ago.

The new-look Darvish made his Cactus League debut here Tuesday afternoon against the White Sox, and it was Maddux who made one other interesting observation on the 12-month transformation of the Rangers’ prized Japanese import.

“I thought last spring he came in here with maybe a dose of overconfidence,” said Maddux. “In a way, that wasn’t all bad. But now he’s our sophomore veteran, so to speak.

“Yu went through it all last season, adjusted to it all, including the ups and the downs, and you really had to like the way he eventually handled it all. Obviously, he knows what to expect now, and this spring he’s gone about his work with confidence, plus without the three-ring circus that followed him around here last spring.”

Yes, the Japanese media army has shrunk considerably in Surprise compared to a year ago. Maybe by three-fourths. Has Yu-mania subsided in Japan?

“The interest is still there, it’s just not as intense,” said “Sam,” a TV reporter based out of Los Angeles for a Japanese network. “Last spring, the whole nation was curious about how he would do over here.

“Yu was the best pitcher we had, so much better than anyone else. Plus, he’s considered the new generation of Japanese ballplayer. The interest level was immense a year ago.

“Now that we’ve seen it, and he did well for a first-year pitcher over here, like I said, the interest is still there, but the intensity is a bit different in Japan.”

From the Rangers’ point of view, however, the “intensity” surrounding Yu and the state of the club’s rotation remains way, way up there.

With an investment of $112 million in Darvish, he’s expected to reach ace status, and in this rotation, Yu is already there. But the off-season plan was to give Darvish some friendly competition for the team’s ace status.

And then, of course, Zack Greinke went to the Dodgers, who topped off the free agent bidding war with a winning investment of $147 million. “It’s not any secret we wanted Greinke, and at one time, we thought we’d get him,” team president Nolan Ryan said.

Currently, there is mild debate in the Rangers’ camp about stepping up for free agent pitcher Kyle Lohse, who is still unsigned because of the price tag. Also an important element is giving up the club’s first-round draft pick in June if Lohse is signed.

The Lohse issue here involves an ongoing concern about the middle and back end of the Rangers’ rotation. Meanwhile, Yu and Matt Harrison are considered a solid 1-2 entry.

General manager Jon Daniels said Tuesday that Lohse is only a backburner topic for the Rangers, partly because of the continuing faith in Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando, plus the good news on the health status of veteran Colby Lewis.

“Colby is on schedule to return by early May, and return at full strength,” said Daniels. Over the winter, there was hope Lewis could be back in mid-June, but the timetable continues to be more favorable.

Meanwhile, despite Daniels’ confidence, other voices still have faith that Holland will be effective in the rotation, but the doubters on Ogando at the moment are rather numerous.

First things first, however, and that’s Darvish.

In what ended up as a 14-8 loss to the White Sox, Yu was a pitching exception for the Rangers. As scheduled, he worked the first two innings and was extremely impressive. “Yu looked in midseason form the way he was mixing up his pitches with success,” said Daniels.

Six up, six down, without a ball hit hard off him, and there were two strikeouts.

“Even this early, even that being his first start of the spring, Yu today was a welcome sight for sore eyes,” said Ryan.

Nolan didn’t say it, but maybe the sore eyes involved what had been seen from other Rangers pitchers so far this spring, although most of those struggling hurlers are not considered prime staff candidates, at least to start the season with the club.

But with a much different kind of spring this time, Yu is the staff horse. When Darvish has a good outing, everybody feels better.

Randy Galloway can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on Galloway & Co. on ESPN/103.3 FM.

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