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Darvish quiets doubters by earning win vs. Reds

Rangers ace reasserts fastball, gets support to end streak without victory @RichardJustice

ARLINGTON -- Is there a problem with Yu Darvish? There has to be, right? Why else would the Rangers ace go seven straight starts without a victory?

No question he'd had some hiccups during the seven games. He let three leads slip away. More troubling is that scouts say he was throwing fewer fastballs, relying instead on offspeed and breaking stuff.

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Whatever else was going on with him, the reluctance to throw fastballs raised red flags. Was there a mechanical issue? Or an injury?

Darvish simply doesn't reveal much about his game plans. Besides, pitch selection may always be an issue with him.

At his best, he's capable of commanding six or seven pitches. One of the things that intrigued teams during his free agency is that his stuff is so good and so varied that he'd always have an out pitch.

And talk of a Darvish "slump" made for a good topic. When teams have played at a high level for a long period of time, brushfires can roar because there are so few meaty issues.

Here's the problem with complaining about Darvish: It looks silly. To take three steps back and look at the big picture is to see there may not be a problem at all.

For one thing, his ERA during the seven-game winless streak was a very solid 2.93. For another thing, the Rangers scored a total of 16 runs in the seven games (2.29 per game).

Yes, he was given four leads (the bullpen blew one), but the margin of error was razor thin. So if he changed his pattern of pitching, it may have been his way of attempting to be perfect, perhaps too perfect.

He showed up at Rangers Ballpark on Sunday leading the American League in strikeouts and second in opponents batting average. He was ninth in ERA and innings.

But he was stuck on seven victories for the 45th consecutive day, and even though the raw numbers look good, that win-loss record could cost him a berth on the AL All-Star team.

Two things happened Sunday afternoon as the Rangers defeated the Reds, 3-2, to continue rolling toward a fourth straight playoff appearance. One is that Darvish re-established his fastball. The other is that a little bit of offense was enough.

Darvish threw 117 pitches in all -- 72 percent of them fastballs.

"I just wanted to shut all the people up who are talking about my fastball," he said.

In the first inning, he set Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips up with a 97 mph heater before striking him out on a slider. An inning later, he went right after catcher Devin Mesoraco, striking him out on a 95 mph fastball.

He wasn't particularly sharp. He needed 59 pitches to get through three innings, and with three young starters in the rotation, the Rangers desperately need Darvish to pitch deeper into games. He entered Sunday having thrown the second-highest number of pitches in the American League, behind only Cleveland's Justin Masterson.

Still, he showed off everything. He got Reds center fielder Shin-Soo Choo on a curve in the fifth and first baseman Joey Votto on a two-seam fastball in the sixth.

The Reds had runners in scoring position only twice against him, and on a 91-degree day he looked very much like one of the top starters in the game, pitching 6 2/3 shutout innings.

"I've seen him sharper," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "But the sign of a good pitcher is when you can win without your sharpest stuff. His breaking ball wasn't as sharp. His changeup wasn't as sharp as I've seen. He was high with the fastball. Sometimes that's even more effective than throwing strikes. The guy has dynamite stuff."

Darvish did walk four, but added to his league-leading strikeout total with eight. When the Rangers turned a muffed squeeze play by the Reds into two runs in the fifth inning and Nelson Cruz looped a run-scoring single to center in the seventh, Darvish won for the first time since May 16.

"Looked like the same Darvish to me," Rangers manager Ron Washington said.

When a reporter asked Darvish about tips he'd gotten from Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux since his last start, he revealed a tiny bit of his thinking.

"Last year, I was trying to absorb everything people were saying," he said. "This year, I'm going to take the things that are good. For this start, I was working on some other things."

There has been significant local debate about whether the Rangers need to add pitching or offense at the Trade Deadline. Offense has been a struggle the entire season, but if general manager Jon Daniels could add a top-of-the-rotation guy, he'd almost certainly attempt to do it. On Sunday afternoon, it looked like he already has one.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.

Texas Rangers, Yu Darvish