April 1, 2013

Year Two gets under way Tuesday for Yu Darvish

The right-hander finds a comfort zone in the majors and the U.S.

No lofty expectations were placed on Yu Darvish last year by Texas Rangers club brass, at least not publicly, because they knew that the right-hander was already facing enough challenges.

The baseball stuff would eventually take care of itself, and it did. But adapting to a new culture in a new country, the Rangers cautioned, was going to be more difficult than anyone was predicting.

Perhaps even Darvish himself.

Things started to come together toward the end of last season, when Darvish simplified his pitching approach and stopped being concerned by outside distractions. The result was a close to the season that was as good as any other pitcher in the game.

The Rangers again aren’t putting outrageous expectations on Darvish in terms of wins and Cy Young chances as his second season begins Tuesday with a start against Houston, and neither is he.

But he has something that he didn’t have a year ago — peace of mind — and that should count as a victory even for a pitcher who is as supremely confident as Darvish.

“My goal is to stay healthy and stay in the rotation throughout the season and help this team win as much as possible,” Darvish said. “It’s hard to quantify how much more of a comfort level I have this year compared to last year at this time, but having one year under my belt, I’m more relaxed and I know how things are run in America. I feel a lot more comfortable.”

That was plain to see during spring training, where he interacted more with teammates and wasn’t hounded daily by giant throngs of Japanese media. His on-field performance suggested a nice comfort zone, as well.

The only hiccup was a stiff neck that forced Darvish to miss a start in Arizona, but he said that his neck and his arm strength are fine entering his 2013 debut.

Otherwise, Darvish went 1-1 with a 1.98 ERA in four Cactus League starts, holding opponents to a .167 batting average and walking only three batters in 13 2/3 innings. His encore was four innings of one-hit ball Thursday against a Mexico City Triple A lineup that struck out seven times against him.

He looked like the pitcher who finished last season with a 5-1 record and a 2.35 ERA over his final eight starts, a span that saw him pitch at least seven innings and allow four hits or fewer over four straight starts.

“I expect him to begin where he left off last season,” pitching coach Mike Maddux said. “I see a more confident guy, more confident in that he knows what’s ahead of him rather than all the question marks.”

But it wasn’t culture shock alone that led to his midseason struggles on the mound. Darvish, said manager Ron Washington, was trying to use all seven or eight of his pitches in the same game rather than focusing on the pitches that were working best on a given day.

He walked too many batters early in the season but didn’t walk more than two in any of his final seven starts after simplifying his approach and then adjusting when needed. Darvish finished with a 16-9 record, a 3.90 ERA, 221 strikeouts, 89 walks and a .220 opponents’ batting average.

“What caused him to do a lot of walking was he was trying to throw 18,000 pitches,” Washington said. “Now he does what pitchers do. They go to the bullpen. They warm up. And he knows what he has and he knows what’s working when he goes to the mound, and he uses it. If he has to use something else, he makes the adjustment.

“This guy was a really good pitcher before he came here. He just had to get adjusted to being over here in the United States, and he did that. Now he can be Yu Darvish, and that’s always been getting outs.”

Darvish’s second season begins Tuesday at Minute Maid Park. There are no lofty expectations again, but peace of mind already has him ahead of where he was a year ago.

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