4:20 PM CDT, April 27, 2013
A.J. Pierzynski had one of the great quotes of the season.
"He had all seven of his pitches working,'' said Pierzynski, who jumped from the White Sox to the Rangers last winter.
Pierzynski wasn't kidding. The catcher was giving an honest account of Yu Darvish's stuff after the Japanese import came within one out of a perfect game April 2 at Houston. And Darvish hasn't slowed down since then.
The White Sox will try to solve Darvish on Tuesday. The first challenge is merely to put the ball in play.
Through his first five starts, Darvish has 49 strikeouts in 322/3 innings. That pace hints at having a chance to put together the first 300-strikeout season since 2002, when Randy Johnson struck out 334 and Curt Schilling 316.
Darvish struck out 14 Astros when he retired 26 in a row before Marwin Gonzalez's single between his legs. He had only six the next time out against the Angels, which was his shakiest start of the first five, but then had eight and 10 in back-to-back starts against the Mariners and 11 Wednesday night against the Angels.
Ron Washington isn't surprised.
"He can finesse you, and he can overpower you,'' the Rangers manager told the Dallas Morning News. "He knows what he has when he comes out of the bullpen, and he knows what he can use. He's comfortable out there.''
When Nolan Ryan set the modern record with 383 strikeouts for the 1973 Angels, he had 41 strikeouts through his first 322/3 innings — eight fewer than Darvish.
Of course, Ryan worked 326 innings that season. The Rangers limited Darvish to 1911/3 innings last year. He probably won't pitch more than 215 in 2013. He probably would need 250-plus.
Darvish does appear to be more comfortable than a year ago. He finished third in Rookie of the Year voting and appeared on one Cy Young ballot after a 16-9 season in which he had a 3.90 earned-run average.
Darvish has faced some weak lineups early, getting the Mariners twice and the Astros once. But it's impressive that he has cut his WHIP from 1.280 to 0.796 while increasing his ratio of strikeouts per nine innings from 10.4 to 13.5.
Somewhat underwhelming early last season, Darvish was 9-2 with a 2.10 ERA and 116 strikeouts in 90 innings in his last 13 starts. He has carried that confidence into 2013, showing the stuff of a Cy Young winner.
When Darvish got to spring training in 2012, he talked about throwing nine pitches during his seven-year run with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. Rangers pitching coach Mike Maddux has trimmed that list a little, but Pierzynski wasn't kidding about the seven.
Against the Angels on Wednesday, Darvish's pitches ranged from a 98-mph fastball to a 60-mph curve. That will drive hitters crazy.
Geovany Soto, acquired from the Cubs at midseason, caught Darvish during his stretch-run starts last year. He was expected to remain in that role, but Pierzynski clicked with Darvish in the spring, ending any notion of Darvish having a personal catcher.
Should the White Sox have valued Pierzynski more highly?
"I heard a lot about A.J., and from what I heard, he didn't have a very good reputation," Darvish said through an interpreter. "But, in my mind, now that I've gotten a chance to work with him, he's a very good person, a very good catcher and a very mature player. He treats me like an adult, but almost like a parent would treat an adult child. It's a very good thing."
Pierzynski loves the opportunity he has been given.
"He has all the pitches," Pierzynski said. "He has the mentality, and he keeps getting more comfortable. I feel like I can put down any sign and he will go with it and execute the pitch. He makes it so difficult for other teams to gauge what he's using and going to do with it.''
Road warriors: Baseball fans in Kansas City are giddy, and you can't blame them considering how well the Royals just played on one of the toughest trips imaginable. They went 4-3 on an 11-day jaunt through Atlanta, Boston and Detroit.
The trip included a game postponed for the Boston Marathon manhunt, another that was rained out and three scheduled off days. The Royals swept a doubleheader at Fenway Park and ended the trip with a victory over the Tigers at Comerica Park in a Justin Verlander-James Shields matchup.
"This is a phenomenal road trip for us," said Shields, who has set the tone for a greatly improved starting rotation. "I think in about August, we're going to look back at this road trip, and it's going to be a pretty crucial road trip. We did a great job of coming back in some games. We did a great job of grinding out some wins."
The Royals have won the last game in all seven of their series. Not sure what that means, but it sure beats losing all seven.
Limited impact: While the Phillies have gone 0-5 in Cole Hamels' starts, the Nationals have been only 1-4 with Stephen Strasburg on the mound. They have lost his last four, in large part because he has given up eight first-inning runs in those games.
"I was trying to throw the perfect pitch," Strasburg said. "I tell myself going into the game, 'Don't do that.' And I go out there and I do it."
Strasburg is allowing a .360 batting average in the first inning compared to a .186 average otherwise. Manager Davey Johnson says it's about getting the ball down and trusting his stuff. It's amazing to think that even a dominator like Strasburg has trouble doing that at times.
The heat's on: Mariners manager Eric Wedge let his team have it at the end of a 1-5 trip playing against the Rangers and Astros.
"I felt like there were some points in time where we didn't put up the types of at-bats you like to see," Wedge said. "I still feel good about a couple of these guys. I think they're headed in the right direction. That's the positives. … There are some good things to pull from this, but overall when you get beat like that, when you have a chance to win a series, it's just something we have to do a lot better with."
The Mariners have found two of their operating theories flawed. They expected to score more runs after adding Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez, and they thought they would benefit from a heavy diet of games against the lowly Astros, who moved from the NL Central to the AL West.
In their first 23 games, they were hitting .228 and barely averaging three runs. They lost four of their first six to Houston, scoring more than three runs only twice.
Wedge benched Brendan Ryan, going to .233 career hitter Robert Andino as his regular shortstop. The bigger question than how much difference this will make is how much time Mariners ownership will give general manager Jack Zduriencik and Wedge to get things turned around.
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