Up to Yu Darvish to lead the way

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Sometime last season in late August, Yu Darvish stopped pitching to impress his countrymen in Japan.

He quit pitching to impress his new teammates on the Texas Rangers. And the fan base.

Finally, he started pitching solely to get outs.

Once he did, the results were sensational. Yu went 3-0 with a 2.21 ERA in September, one of the few who played well as the Rangers experienced one of the worst collapses in baseball history.

In the process, Yu laid the foundation for what the Rangers need to be a spectacular season.

We're talking about a guy with more than enough talent to be the Rangers' first true ace in his prime since Kevin Brown went 21-11 in 1992. Or Kenny Rogers, who went 17-7 in 1995.

He's capable.

Yu is the kind of player, much like Josh Hamilton, who draws fans to the ballpark because there's always a sense that he's going to do something we've never seen before.

Since he grew up in Japan and speaks to the media (through an interpreter) only the day before starts and after he pitches, Yu remains an enigma. Aside from his teammates, no one really knows him.

What we do know is that he has the stuff to be among the best in the big leagues. And now, he has the mentality, too.

Last April, Yu went 4-0 with a 2.18 ERA as AL hitters got their first glimpse at him. During the next four months, Yu spent too much time nibbling on the corners, trying to trick batters instead of attacking them.

Some say it's the Japanese way. Perhaps, but it doesn't work here.

Major League Baseball is about establishing the fastball, getting ahead in the count and dismissing batters with pitches out of the strike zone.

From May through August, Yu allowed only 106 hits in 120 innings, but he walked 65 batters. You give that many hitters a free ride in the American League and it's only a matter of time until they score.

In those four months, he walked at least four batters eight times in 20 starts. Twice, he walked as many as six. Last season, Yu averaged 16.5 pitches per inning and 3.88 pitches per batter.

Each ranked 11th in the AL.

"He was trying to prove something every time he pitched last year," Ron Washington said. "He didn't need to do that. He didn't need to prove anything. All he needed to do was pitch and be himself."

Of course, that's easier said than done considering the Rangers paid the Nippon-Ham Fighters $51.7 million just for the right to sign Yu to a five-year, $60 million deal.

A throng of Japanese media chronicled his every move last season, treating off-day bullpen sessions like starts. But he survived.

"Compared to last year, I'm enjoying spring training a lot more," Darvish said through an interpreter. "Last year I had to pressure myself to get outs. Now I'm trying new things and enjoying it more."

Yu has been terrific during spring training, allowing one run on five hits in 8 2/3 innings. He has just two walks and 10 strikeouts.

Yu has figured out that when he throws his fastball for strikes and gets ahead of hitters, most have no chance. He's spent spring training working on a slider that's not quite as hard as the regular slider he throws on two-strike counts.

He's even experimented with a 61 mph curveball, something a pitcher capable of throwing in the mid-90s should not be able to use.

"It's a pitch that I wanted to surprise the hitters with," Darvish said. "And by looking at the reaction of the fans, I think it's a pitch everyone enjoys."

Except the hitters.

The Rangers lost a chunk of their offense with the offseason departures of Josh Hamilton and Mike Napoli, who combined for 67 homers and 184 RBIs. If they're going to win the AL West this season, their rotation must lead the way.

It starts with Yu.

He struck out 221 and allowed just 156 hits in 191 1/3 innings last season -- while he was figuring things out.

This spring he's mixing his pitches well, commanding his fastball and efficiently dispatching batters.

"He's confident in his surroundings now," Washington said. "He's not trying to prove anything this year."

It's why he should be the Opening Day starter for the Rangers.