I guess Yu Darvish decided to be the best pitcher on the planet again tonight
— Tommy Rancel (@TRancel) August 2, 2013
That pretty much sums it up. When Yu Darvish is clicking on all cylinders, commanding his fastball and throwing his whiffle ball slider, he's beautiful to watch, tall and lean, the pitches exploding from a simple delivery that seems effortless.
Paul Goldschmidt is one of the best hitters in baseball. Could end up being the National League MVP this year. He had no chance against Darvish on Thursday night. Not many of his teammates did, either, as Darvish struck out 14 in seven scoreless innings of the Rangers' 7-1 victory over the Diamondbacks. Check out the Goldschmidt at-bats:
First inning: Three four-seam fastballs, foul ball, foul ball, swing and a miss.
Fourth inning: Slow 78 mph slider for a strike, foul ball on a 94 mph fastball, 85 mph slider for a ball, couldn't pull the trigger on a 96 mph four-seamer.
Sixth inning: Three sliders and then a 1-2 fastball that he again took for a called strike three. Sit down, tip your cap and erase this game from your memory.
Darvish did this all night, sticking almost exclusively to a four-seam fastball/slider mix, with 100 of his 111 pitches fastballs or sliders, mixing in a few splitters and a couple of curveballs and changeups. Darvish has been accused of having too many weapons, with this performance an indication of how he can dominate with a simplified approach, one that could help cut down on the walks that sometimes plague him.
"His stuff was just nasty," catcher A.J. Pierzynski told MLB.com. "He's throwing fastballs to the corners, he had a really good split tonight, and obviously he always has his slider. He just kept mixing it up and strikeouts kept coming and coming. Nights like that are fun."
Darvish wasn't as impressed as his catcher, saying through an interpreter, "I didn't think I was going to get that many strikeouts. My movement on my slider was really inconsistent. Some were dropping down, some were going sideways. I think that worked in my favor." Darvish, who missed two weeks in early July with a mild back strain, said the DL stint helped. "I think the key was when I went on the DL, I tried to do things as far as my delivery and tried many new things to have the delivery that I have right now."
As Matthew Pouliot tweeted, Darvish joined exclusive company with his fourth game of at least 14 strikeouts in a season:
Darvish is the 7th diff. SP ever to have four 14-K games in a year: Unit (7 times), Ryan (3), Clemens (2), Pedro, Sam McDowell, Langston.
— Matthew Pouliot (@matthewpouliot) August 2, 2013
Darvish's dominance shows up in all kinds of numbers: He's first in the majors in strikeout percentage among starters, first in swing-and-miss percentage, first in total strikeouts and second to Clayton Kershaw in batting average allowed. When you're describing the starters with the best pure "stuff," it's hard to argue against Darvish.
There is, however, room for improvement. While Darvish is 10-5 with a 2.66 ERA, this was his first seven-inning start since June 13, a span of six starts in a row in which he hadn't gone seven. He's pitched more than seven innings just twice. Compare that to Kershaw's 10 such starts or Felix Hernandez's nine. Maybe his back had bothered him, but Darvish's stuff can work against him as he runs up high pitch counts as batters struggle to make contact; at times, he nibbles and doesn't challenge hitters.
That's why Thursday's outing was his best of the season since dominating a helpless Astros team in his first start. He racked up the 14 K's but still threw just 111 pitches; he could have gone another inning, but on a 100-degree day in Arlington, Texas, Ron Washington wasn't going to unnecessarily extend him with a seven-run lead.
A recent 3-12 stretch -- snapped with this week's three dramatic walk-off home runs against the Angels -- dropped the Rangers six games behind the A's in the American League West, which they've since cut to 3.5 games. They also trail Cleveland in the wild-card race, tied with Baltimore, a half-game behind. Considering the Rangers didn't pick up a bat at the trade deadline and that right fielder Nelson Cruz is likely facing a 50-game Biogenesis suspension, the Rangers need Darvish to go on one of those historical rolls, where a starting pitcher seemingly lifts an entire team on his shoulders and dominates every fifth game.
Think Justin Verlander in 2011, when he won 12 consecutive starts with a 2.28 ERA. Think Randy Johnson of the miracle '95 Mariners, when he went 7-0 with a 1.45 ERA over his final 10 starts. Or Orel Hershiser of the '88 Dodgers, who went 7-1 with a 0.44 ERA and eight complete games in his final nine starts.
It's asking a lot for a guy with a 2.66 ERA to get better, but Darvish has that ability. If the Rangers are going to catch the A's, it just might take two historic months from their ace.