Yu Darvish was scratched from his start on Tuesday (Sept. 25) due to a stiff neck. Had he pitched, would the Texas Rangers be looking at a series win in their four-game set with the Oakland Athletics, rather than trying for a split on Thursday?
The rookie has been shutting down all the competition he's faced recently. Darvish has allowed one run in each of his past three starts. Since giving up 13 runs over two starts in early August, he's allowed three runs or fewer in his last seven appearances.
Darvish is scheduled to pitch Sunday (Sept. 30) against the Los Angeles Angels. But according to ESPN Dallas' Richard Durrett, the Rangers are considering starting Darvish on Friday if he's healthy. That would allow him to make two more starts before the playoffs, the second of which would be the last game of the season on Oct. 3.
Starting him on Sunday would put Darvish in line to start Game 1 of the AL Division Series with an extra day of rest. But if the Rangers preferred that Darvish pitch twice before the playoffs to stay sharp, he could be held to fewer innings, almost as if he was throwing a side session, and still be available for the postseason opener.
The fact that the Rangers are moving around their starting rotation to allow Darvish to pitch in Game 1 of the ALDS shows that the team feels he's ready to be its top starter through the playoffs. But can Darvish handle that role in his first major league postseason with Texas aiming for a World Series championship?
While Matt Harrison leads the Rangers' starting rotation with 17 wins and a 3.17 ERA, Darvish is more of a strikeout pitcher who could blow away the opposition (whether it's the Detroit Tigers, Oakland Athletics or Baltimore Orioles) in the first game of a five-game playoff series.
As of Sept. 27, Darvish has 214 strikeouts in 184.2 innings. No one else in the Rangers' rotation is even close. Derek Holland has 74 fewer strikeouts (albeit in approximately 18 fewer innings) for the season.
Darvish's strikeout total works out to a rate of 10.4 Ks per nine innings, easily the best among the Rangers' five starting pitchers. While he does issue more walks than his fellow starters (4.3 per game), Darvish negates that by giving up the fewest hits (7.4 per nine) and home runs (0.6 per game) in the starting rotation.
Before the July 31 trade deadline, the Rangers felt that they had to acquire a No. 1 starter for their rotation, someone like Zack Greinke or Cole Hamels. General manager Jon Daniels ended up getting Ryan Dempster, who's a very good pitcher (perhaps an excellent one in the National League), but maybe not the ace-caliber starter he was looking for.
However, the Rangers may have had that pitcher all along in Darvish. He certainly has No. 1 starter stuff, but the team was likely reluctant to put a rookie in that role during his first postseason. The Rangers are under a lot of pressure to win after losing the past two World Series. Maybe a veteran could handle that better.
Texas had that veteran in Colby Lewis, but a torn flexor tendon in his right elbow knocked him out for the rest of the season. Dempster is someone else who could fill that veteran role, but with a 4.48 ERA since coming over from the Chicago Cubs and little postseason experience on his resume, is he really a preferable choice over Darvish just because he's older?
Darvish is a tough matchup for any opponent in a playoff series, featuring four pitches in his repertoire. According to FanGraphs, the rookie throws a slider, cutter and curveball to go with a fastball that averages 93 mph. As long as he throws strikes, Darvish can overwhelm an opposing lineup, and be the difference-maker in a short series.
If the postseason proves to be too much for Darvish to handle initially (or if he's too amped up at first, like he was in his major league debut), the Rangers have enough depth in their rotation to help out if needed. Scott Feldman, Martin Perez and Roy Oswalt could all be on standby to pitch in long relief if Darvish has to leave a game early.
But Darvish appears to be handling the pressure of a pennant race just fine. September has been his best month of the season with a 3-0 record and 1.80 ERA in four starts. He appears to be getting better later into the season, which has to be a pleasant surprise for the Rangers.
Obviously, the postseason is an entirely different circumstance. Any big-league pitcher would tell you that every pitch matters, every inning is a high-leverage situation. Baserunners and a run here or there can't be dismissed the way they might be in a regular-season game.
It remains to be seen how Darvish will perform under that kind of pressure. But he's met the high expectations projected for him this season and there's no reason to think he can't maintain that level of performance in the playoffs.
And if the Rangers face the Tigers in the ALDS, watch out. In three starts against Detroit this year, Darvish is 3-0 with a 3.60 ERA and 23 strikeouts in 20 innings.
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