Watching the last couple of nights of elimination games in the playoffs was an education on what it means to step up and perform at your best on the mound when the stakes are the highest.
The Cardinals' Adam Wainwright and the Tigers' Justin Verlander stuffed the opposition. Wainwright allowed one run in nine innings with six strikeouts and a walk in beating the Pirates and sending the Cardinals to the NLCS. Verlander was even more dominant, not giving up a hit to the A's until the seventh inning of the winner-take-all Game 5 on Thursday before completing eight shutout innings in the victory. (Verlander wasn't really Verlander for the first part of this season, but he's figured it out at the right time.)
Wainwright and Verlander are aces with track records in this league. Wainwright is 32 years old and has pitched at least 198 2/3 innings his last four seasons. His ERA has been below 3.00 in all but one of those seasons. Verlander, who turns 31 in February, has seven straight seasons of at least 200 innings. And he's got 85 1/3 innings of postseason play behind him, too. (Wainwright has nearly 50 innings).
Can Yu Darvish reach those heights? I think he can. We've talked a lot late this season about Darvish and where he is in his career. He's not on the same level as Wainwright and Verlander because he hasn't stepped up and pitched like they have in the key moments. But it's not as if Wainwright and Verlander just showed up in the big leagues and did that right away, either. In fact, for all of Verlander's greatness, he had a 5.82 ERA in 2006 in four postseason starts and a 5.31 ERA in 2011 in four starts (two of those against the Rangers). And remember: Darvish is 27. He's got some years before he reaches the ages of Verlander and Wainwright now.
Here's betting that Darvish watched Wainwright and Verlander the last two nights and took some mental notes. He's got the stuff to pitch just as well as those guys, but doesn't have the big-league experience. It takes time. But it also shows that Darvish still has a way to go in his maturation process. His last handful of starts in 2013 showed that as he struggled to hang onto leads, albeit slim ones with an offense that was having trouble producing runs.
But like Verlander and Wainwright, they had to pitch in some of those games -- and struggle in some of them, too -- before putting it all together. Both have emerged as reliable, big-game pitchers. Darvish can too, but he'll need to find that extra gear (more mental than physical). That's bound to be one of his goals for 2014. And I think it's achievable.