Nearly a year ago Yu Darvish had to explain what happened when Will Venable lashed a double off the top of the center-field wall in his spring training debut, and he was pressed about an early lack of command.
Darvish’s spring debut this year was different, much different. He didn’t have to describe what pitch a Chicago White Sox batter hit hard, because he didn’t give them much to hit.
Darvish was perfect over two innings Tuesday at Surprise Stadium, needing only 28 pitches to register six outs and hit 97 mph in the first inning.
The results were a confirmation of what Rangers players and coaches have seen this spring, and even Darvish himself has quietly let people know. He’s further ahead and feeling much better than he did a year ago.
How that will translate to the regular season won’t be known for more than a month, but Darvish is a different pitcher than he was last spring. And that’s a good thing.
“It was up a notch today,” said catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who caught Darvish last week in an intrasquad game.
“His velocity was up. His stuff was just better. I don’t know if it was because another team was out there or if the intensity was just ratcheted up, but he threw the ball really well and it was really encouraging to see. … He was as good as you can ask for.”
Darvish got two pop-outs and a strikeout in the first inning, and two flyouts and a strikeout in the second. He was behind 3-0 in the count to the last batter he faced, but Seth Loman swung at the fourth pitch and lofted a fly ball to left field.
Two of Darvish’s fastballs hit 97 mph, and he threw five more at 96. The only pitch he didn’t appear to have full command of was his slow curveball. It was small sampling, though, as he threw it only once.
About the only thing that didn’t go right was that he didn’t get the decision after Cody Buckel and Evan Meek allowed 11 runs over the next two innings in what became a 14-8 loss.
“This was just a short two innings, and I didn’t really have to pace myself,” Darvish said. “Just the fact that I’m throwing 96 right now doesn’t mean I’m going to be throwing 100 during the season.”
Though the remark was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, it’s an indication of how Darvish is keeping things in perspective more this spring. For one thing, he knows what to expect in a big-league camp, but he’s also more at ease.
His first start wasn’t the spectacle that it was last year. The media pool was estimated by the Rangers’ media-relations staff at 100 fewer than in 2012, and the reporter count has been significantly less throughout camp.
Teammates have noticed a player who is more sure of his surroundings and more comfortable with his teammates. Darvish had plenty to figure out off the field last year that he doesn’t need to worry about now.
“He’s more relaxed, and he’s enjoying it,” left-hander Derek Holland said. “He just had to get used to it. If you come from a different country, you have to get used to everything going on around you. It’s good how he’s really adapted.”
Darvish likely will make four more starts before Opening Day, but he has needed only two weeks to discover that he feels better physically than he did a year ago. His body is taking less of a pounding because of his off-season workouts.
Manager Ron Washington, though, stressed the mental side. Darvish, it appears, is actually enjoying himself.
“Now, he’s going through it for a second time,” Washington said. “He already has the experience. He knows what to expect. He went out there today and had fun, and he got the job done.”
Darvish’s outing Tuesday was only the first, and two innings at that. But those who have watched him this spring, and even Darvish himself, see a better pitcher than they did a year ago.
“He definitely looks more in control,” Holland said. “He’s knows what he needs to do and what he’s capable of doing. He’s doing to go out and execute. He’s got great stuff.”