The breeze that went through Surprise Stadium on Sunday was another Cactus League start by Yu Darvish, who continued to perform like the undisputed ace of a major league team should.
Not everything was perfect from the right-hander, who occasionally struggled with his mechanics and sailed a few pitches high and wide. As a result, he wasn’t as economical as he has been in previous spring outings and felt the need to tinker in the bullpen after he was removed from the game.
Still, he worked three no-hit innings before running into some trouble in the fourth, when a chopper off the hardpan infield turned into a two-run single instead of the inning-ending out he would get at a major league ballpark.
After 4 2/3 innings against the Chicago White Sox, Darvish left with a pitching line of four hits, two earned runs, three walks, three strikeouts and no worries.
No one with the Texas Rangers is concerned about a pitcher who is coming into his own in the clubhouse and finally feels comfortable enough to suggest ideas and assert more of his will.
That’s the biggest difference with Darvish this spring, and it could make a big difference as he follows up his Cy Young runner-up season.
“I’m not doing anything differently this year, but I feel very comfortable this spring,” Darvish said. “That first year, I felt a little bit like an outsider, but I don’t feel that at all. So being comfortable is a key.”
Darvish has been the Rangers’ steadiest performer through four starts in a starting rotation that doesn’t need to hit any more bumps. The bumps he hit against the White Sox were self-inflicted.
He worked primarily with his two-seam and cut fastballs to see how hitters would react. He isn’t completely sold on ditching his reliance on his slider, but he said that he is considering attacking more with his fastball this season.
The tinkering will continue through the spring, pitching coach Mike Maddux said. Darvish has that freedom because he can throw seven pitches that can get hitters out. He also is altering his delivery to help take stress off his back, which was an issue the final two months of last season.
“He’s a little more proactive in any alteration,” Maddux said. “I think he feels the freedom to hone his craft and work on things, whereas the first year it was like, ‘We’ve got to get everybody out.’
“Now he’s confident in his own shoes that he has the ability to work on different pitches on a given day. It’s spring training, and he has the freedom to get outside of his box.”
Even when he experiments, he’s still awfully good and is still capable of getting outs while working primarily with only two pitches. That was the case Sunday.
He’s also a tough critic.
“It wasn’t very good,” said Darvish, who has a 3.68 ERA after 14 2/3 innings. “But I was able to grind it out and get off the mound.”
His manager, despite seeing some command issues with the fastballs, was a little kinder on the grading scale.
“He had to work for his outs today, but it was pretty good,” Washington said. “He just had trouble keeping his fastball where he wanted it at times, but he was able to make some good pitches when he had to.”
The Rangers didn’t see much experimenting from Darvish during his first spring two years ago after coming to the majors from Japan. But they’re seeing it now, even welcoming it, and they have no worries about their staff ace.
Darvish finally feels comfortable, and the resulting sense of freedom is a good thing.
“Even though he might be working on a given pitch, it’s still a pretty good pitch,” Maddux said. “So the hitters still have their hands full if he throws the same pitch four times in a row, which he did today.
“It’s something he’s learning about himself. When he first came over here, he was going to do exactly what he was told to do. Now, he understands our variety of thoughts and our variety of working techniques, and he’s taken some of that approach to his game.”