At 6:16 p.m. Saturday, under a setting sun, 657 days after he last left a pitching mound, Yu Darvish returned to make the Texas Rangers whole again.
He dazzled. He dominated. He Darvish-ed.
Throwing 94 mph in the first inning and, on occasion, 96 and as much as 98, Darvish gave the Rangers all they could have asked for from a bedrock pitching ace who last took the mound 262 games ago.
Darvish threw 81 pitches against the Pittsburgh Pirates, allowing only three singles while striking out seven, as the Rangers won 5-2.
More than that, though, he pitched like the Darvish the Rangers remember, the pitcher who was the toughest to hit in the American League in 2013.
When asked what impressed him the most about Darvish’s performance, manager Jeff Banister said, simply, “Just how explosive the fastball was. Just watching the reaction of their hitters, the movement of the two-seamer, sinking live.”
A sold-out ballpark of 46,950 made the night festive. But most of them have seen Darvish pitch in person before. Banister had not, except from the opposing dugout.
“His stuff is still as electric and explosive as I remember,” said Banister, who was with the Pirates when Darvish pitched against them in 2013. “I know we were only able to get one run off him then, and it was off a broken-bat hit.
“You look at the hitters, you watch their swings, you watch their expressions and their reactions, you see the reaction of our catcher, and you could tell his stuff was electric.”
After striking out John Jaso to end the fifth inning on his 81st pitch of the game, Darvish agreed with Banister that it was as good a moment as any to call it a night.
“Physically, I felt I could go one more inning,” Darvish said through an interpreter, “but mentally I was, like, ‘Okay, I’m done here.’ ”
By all accounts, Darvish has been a model rehab patient since undergoing Tommy John elbow ligament reconstruction surgery on March 17, 2015.
His final rehab start came six days ago in Frisco, a scoreless six innings in which he threw 87 pitches.
Darvish’s fifth pitch Saturday was clocked at 96 mph on the scoreboard. With the Pirates’ third hitter at the plate, Gregory Polanco, Darvish’s fastball came in at 98.
And just like that, he didn’t look like a question mark, hovering over the Rangers’ hopes for the season. He looked like the puzzle’s final piece.
Granted, second baseman Rougned Odor is suspended for a week, right fielder Shin-Soo Choo is injured, and the two big left-handed hitters in the lineup are hovering around the .200 mark.
But adding Darvish to the top of the pitching rotation gives the Rangers another layer of security on the nights when the hitting sputters.
Darvish was Darvish. Confident in himself and confounding to the Pirates’ lineup.
Banister was right. Pittsburgh had but a handful of solid swings at Darvish’s stuff. Only two outs went to the outfield.
Meanwhile, Odor’s fill-in at second base, Jurickson Profar, singled, tripled and scored two runs from the lead-off spot. The two struggling lefties, Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland, each drove in a run, with Moreland hitting his fifth home run of the season.
The Yu Darvish Effect?
Don’t discount it. A year ago the Rangers added Cole Hamels to the rotation, caught the Astros and won the AL West. Adding Cliff Lee took them to the World Series in 2010.
This time, exactly 657 days since he last pitched on a major league mound, 262 games ago, Yu Darvish returned, and suddenly the Rangers appeared whole.
He Darvish-ed, just the way they all remembered.
Rangers vs. Pirates
2:05 p.m. today, FSSW