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Darvish has No. 1 stuff, but still can improve

Rangers want righty to pitch deeper into games, be more consistent

SEATTLE -- Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish has twice come close to throwing a no-hitter against the Astros. After the second one fell five outs short in Texas' 2-1 victory on Aug. 12, Houston manager Bo Porter was expansive in his praise of Darvish.

"He's really good, and it's pretty evident when you look at his numbers," Porter said. "Watch the performance, it's electric stuff. No. 1 starter stuff … you're talking about a guy who has top-line stuff, knows how to use it.

"When a guy can rush it in there at 96 [mph] and spin a breaking ball in the zone, out of the zone -- he doesn't just have control, this guy has command. He can throw every pitch where he wants to throw it, even out of the strike zone. When you have that kind of repertoire, [the other team] is going to be up against it."

Porter's assessment of Darvish's pitching skills has been shared by many since the 27-year-old right-hander arrived from Japan. From the moment the Rangers paid a record-breaking $51.7 million posting fee to the Nippon Ham Fighters and then signed Darvish to a six-year, $56 million contract, the anticipation has been he would be the No. 1 starter on the staff.

There is evidence to suggest that Darvish is close to achieving that. There is also evidence that he is still shy of that mighty badge of pitching honor.

"I don't believe in an ace of the staff," Darvish said. "I don't even know the definition. I think all starting pitchers have the same goal as a unit.

"I know what kind of pitcher I want to be ultimately. I'm trying to get close to my expectations. I'm not trying to meet other expectations. I know what kind of pitcher I want to be, and I'm getting closer to that."

Right now, Darvish is really good. He goes into his start on Friday against the Twins with a 12-5 record, a 2.68 ERA and a league-leading 225 strikeouts. Opponents are hitting .191 off Darvish, second lowest in the league, and his 9.64 baserunners per nine innings are the third lowest.

With six starts left, Darvish has an outside chance to be the second Rangers pitcher to strike out 300 batters in a season. Nolan Ryan struck out 301 in 1989 and has the second most with 232 in 1990. Darvish could move into second place in his next start.

"So far, he has had a very good campaign," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "It's kind of like last year, he's gotten better as the season went along."

But Darvish has made 25 starts and the Rangers are just 14-11 in those starts. The Tigers are 21-5 when Max Scherzer takes the mound. On the other hand, the Dodgers are 16-12 in Clayton Kershaw's 28 starts, and the Tigers are 13-15 when Justin Verlander pitches. The Mariners are also 13-15 with Felix Hernandez on the mound.

Texas was 8-1 in Darvish's first nine starts, and the club has gone 6-10 in his last 16.

"We all know that it could be better," manager Ron Washington said. "There were a few starts of his where we were in a slump, struggling to put some runs on the board.

"It's like Elvis [Andrus] in his early years. This guy came with a lot of hype, but it's only his second year in the United States. Being in the United States is different than being in Japan. He was dominant over there and he has been dominant here, but it hasn't been consistent. It may take him another year. He's still learning."

"His experience in Japan was on how to throw the ball," Maddux said. "But as far as competing in the Major Leagues, this is only his second year. The guy learns from experience and he's got the memory of an elephant. He knows what he did each time against a hitter. He'll keep getting better."

Washington said there are two issues Darvish needs to overcome to reach the level of a true No. 1 starter. He needs to learn to hold on to leads and he needs to cut down pitch counts to get deeper in a game.

Darvish has had four starts this season where he had the lead at some point during the game and the Rangers ended up losing. The latest was on Saturday against the White Sox, when Alex Rios hit a two-run home run in the top of the sixth to give the Rangers a 2-0 lead. But Darvish gave up a two-run home run to Adam Dunn in the bottom of the sixth, and Texas ended up losing the game in the ninth.

"That separates the grand pitcher from the one who is still learning," Washington said. "That's what he has to close. He's got to close that gap. He'll get better at it."

Washington said No. 1 starters are pitchers who give you either nine innings or get through the eighth before handing the ball off to the bullpen. Darvish does not have a complete game in his two years in the Major Leagues and has pitched eight innings in just three of 25 starts this year. Two were the near-no-hitters against the Astros, and the other was a 130-pitch outing against the Tigers on May 16. Washington was taken to task by some after that game for leaving Darvish in too long.

Darvish averages 110.2 pitches an outing, second highest among American League pitchers. He also averages 16.4 pitches per innings, and he is usually pushing his limit in the seventh inning. But when a pitcher has overwhelming stuff, it's hard to get quick outs.

"When he's on, it's tough to put the ball in play," Maddux said. "He probably leads the league in foul balls."

Right now, Darvish is averaging 12.05 strikeouts per nine innings, the ninth-best single-season ratio in the history of baseball. Ryan's best was 11.48 in 1987.

But Ryan, the all-time strikeout leader, was the last pitcher from an era when starters were expected to go nine. Pitch counts weren't recorded most of his career, and there is no doubt Ryan threw over 200 pitches on some occasions. On June 14, 1974, Ryan went 13 innings against the Red Sox, allowing eight hits, 10 walks and 19 strikeouts while facing 58 batters.

"You were taught by the organization that if you started the game, you were expected to finish the game," Ryan said. "I remember [Reds manager] Sparky Anderson taking starting pitchers out after five or six innings and thinking, 'There is no way I want to pitch for that man.' That just wasn't how we were taught. We were expected to finish the job."

Nobody is going to let Darvish face 58 batters on any given night. Ryan and Washington are among those who have pointed out Darvish needs to be more economical with his pitches if he wants to get deeper in the game.

"That's something he has to work out for himself," Washington said. "You can't put that on him. He has to be Yu Darvish and pitch his game. It's something he will have to figure out. That's something he'll get better at as we go forward, getting quick outs."

Most important is how Darvish performs in September and the postseason. The Rangers are a team built to depend on superior starting pitching, and that becomes especially important when the postseason roles around.

Pitchers who are considered No. 1 starters step up in October. Darvish was 5-1 with a 2.35 ERA in his final eight starts last season, but then was outpitched by Joe Saunders of the Orioles in the AL Wild Card Game and the Rangers' season came to abrupt end.

"Expectations have been put on him for a long time," Washington said. "But just because he is over here, it's still a challenge. I don't think he expects less. We expect him to perform and he expects to perform. Some days it happens, some days he has to fight and battle through it. But he's been able to do it both ways."

Darvish said he is close to becoming the pitcher he wants to be. Now, with the division race boiling and the postseason drawing near, this would be a good time to close the gap completely and firmly grasp the title of No. 1 starter. Championship teams rely on them this time of year.

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