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Darvish's stuff sharp in first live batting practice

Rangers' Opening Day starter feeling great, impresses Soto, Maddux

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish only needed 19 pitches in his first live batting practice session to impress catcher Geovany Soto and pitching coach Mike Maddux.

"Yu threw the ball a lot better than I expected," Soto said Tuesday afternoon. "He's almost game ready. He surprised me. I didn't think he would be that good. He feels great."

"He might be a little ahead of some of the other guys," Maddux said after the club's workout. "The ball was coming out nice and easy. He threw good strikes and looked fresh doing it."

That's what the Rangers need to see from their Opening Day starter. Spring Training is only two days old, but it's always a good sign for a club if its No. 1 starter is impressing people right from the beginning. The Rangers -- with Matt Harrison and Tanner Scheppers both scratched from throwing Tuesday -- have an abundance of other concerns on their pitching staff and don't need to start worrying about Darvish right now.

"There is no body part that hurts right now," Darvish said. "Compared to last year, I'm healthy and I'm physically fine. Today I was able to throw all the pitches I wanted to throw and I had a lot of power."

Darvish was not fine at the end of last season. He was dealing with nerve irritation in his lower back and he struggled down the stretch, going 1-4 with a 3.38 ERA in his last nine starts. The Rangers were 3-6 in those starts.

Darvish has come to camp looking slim and trimmer than he did last year, but said he has only lost a couple of pounds. Darvish said he just didn't do as much heavy weight-lifting as he normally does in the offseason.

"He's going to be a lot better this year," Soto said. "His hip and back, they were both really bothering him last year. But he showed me a lot of heart getting through it. This year he looks good and feels great. He is going to have a great year."

Darvish was good enough last year to go 13-9 with a 2.83 ERA and a league-leading 277 strikeouts. He was second in the American League Cy Young Award voting behind Max Scherzer, and manager Ron Washington has already named him as the Opening Day pitcher.

Washington said he still would like to see Darvish improve the command of his fastball. Washington said if he does that, Darvish could get some quicker outs rather than all the foul balls off his secondary stuff that extend at-bats.

"His stuff is so good, you can't put it in play with any consistency," Washington said. "They foul it off, they foul it off. I don't think you ever see them put the ball in play on the first pitch. I'd like to see him command the fastball better and take some stress off his arm. Not that he doesn't command it, but he could do it better."

The Rangers are hoping that will lead to quicker outs, less pitches and less stress on Darvish's body as he goes through the season. He averaged 107.8 pitches per start last season, the fourth-highest in the American League. He averaged 16.5 pitches per inning.

The Rangers don't expect Darvish to get down to the level of Hisashi Iwakuma, whose 14.1 pitches per inning were the lowest in the AL. Darvish gets too many foul balls to become that economical with his pitches.

"Some guys have lower pitch counts who don't have the same stuff as guys with high pitch counts," Maddux said. "But we'd like to have more forward contact than we would side to side contact. Command of the fastball is like a snowball getting bigger. If you command the fastball, you command the count. If you command the count, you command the at-bat. If you command the at-bat, you command the inning. It all goes together."

More run support would help. The Rangers averaged 4.81 runs per nine innings when Darvish was on the mound, but just 3.08 over his last 23 starts. The Rangers went 9-14 in those starts and Darvish lost four games by a score of 1-0.

"If we support him with some runs, he might win us 35 games," Washington said. "He might win us 35 and he's only going to start 32 games."

During Tuesday's news conference, Darvish was asked about the new posting system between Major League Baseball and Japan in light of the seven-year, $155 million contract pitcher Masahiro Tanaka received from the Yankees.

"I don't know all the details of the new posting system, but I think the Yankees gave him a little bit too much," Darvish said with a smile and a laugh through interpreter Kenji Nimura.

Darvish later tweeted he was joking and issued this statement in a release by the Rangers: "I am sorry if anyone took my comment seriously about Masahiro Tanaka at the press conference today. I assumed by the reaction in the room that everyone knew I was joking."

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger.

Texas Rangers, Yu Darvish