Yu Darvish better than ever? He's not sure

ARLINGTON, Texas -- You notice how little talk there is this year about Yu Darvish's pitch counts? Or whether he can get the job done in close games?

So far this season, since he joined the Texas Rangers' rotation a little later than planned because of a bothersome neck this spring, even nitpicking the Cy Young runner-up from 2013 has been close to impossible.

Darvish has the second-best ERA in the American League and allowed four runs in his last 31 2/3 innings spanning four starts. He's put up four starts with at least seven shutout innings, tied with Mark Buehrle for the most in the AL. He has at least seven innings with two or fewer earned runs in seven of his 10 starts.

Think about that. It's ace stuff.

Those are just some of his ridiculous numbers in 2014. I didn't mention that he is first in strikeouts-per-nine-innings at 10.77 or has the second-best opponent batting average at a paltry .210.

Just take my word for it that Darvish's numbers, which we could list for a while here, are extremely impressive.

Put his first 10 starts alongside just about any such set he made since his first start in 2012 and you aren't likely to find a more impressive run for him.

He's had stretches of brilliance before. But now in his third season in the league, there's a maturity to his game. Darvish works off his fastball. He isn't afraid to change strategy and throw his devastating off-speed stuff early in counts if hitters start sitting on the fastball. He still has, arguably, the best slider in baseball.

Darvish, though, brushed off the suggestion that he's pitching better than he has since arriving in the big leagues.

"If you look at the numbers, it looks better than last year," Darvish said Wednesday through an interpreter. "But I really couldn't prepare myself the way I wanted because of the offseason. So I'm not sure I could say yes to your question."

My question was whether this is the best he's pitched. His answer makes you wonder what that 2.08 ERA might have looked like if he had gotten his full offseason.

But for Darvish to bring it up means it's still in the back of his mind. He's big on routine and making sure he's fully prepared. And because of a sore back at the end of 2013, he wasn't able to do that the way he wanted this past winter.

Darvish said he's back to lifting heavy weights and doing everything he's supposed to be doing. And his strained neck appears to be fine. He threw 102 pitches in his last start, going eight innings, and is now back on his five-day schedule.

But one thing with Darvish: You feel like he could throw a no-hitter at any time.

Missing a Darvish start comes with a risk that you won't see something special. The frequency of that seems to have increased during the past month. Darvish's job is to continue to pitch at a high level and, just as important, to stay healthy. That last part has been a challenge for the Rangers in general.

Maybe because it's only 10 starts and two months, Darvish isn't ready to say he's pitching at his highest level since he got to the big leagues. Or, maybe, he knows there's still more there. He'll get another chance to prove it Friday night against the Cleveland Indians.