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Saturday, July 26, 2008

NPB NOTEBOOK

Darvish poised for spotlight at Olympics


Staff writer

Cuba beat Japan 4-0 in the final of the 2004 World Junior Baseball Championships, resulting in the Japanese starter that day ending the tournament 0-1 with a 7.11 ERA.

There's a good chance that Cuba will get another shot at that youngster, although things might not go so well this time around.

News photo
Japan's ace: National team manager Senichi Hoshino is hoping Yu Darvish can have the same kind of impact during the Olympic tournament that he's had with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. KYODO PHOTO

In the almost four years since that game, Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher Yu Darvish has taken the baseball world by storm, compiling a 43-16 (including this season) career record in Japanese baseball, a Sawamura Award, an MVP award and has helped his team win two Pacific League pennants and a Japan Series championship.

The Cubans, and the rest of the Olympic tournament field, likely already know all about Darvish's many achievements. It's figuring out a way to beat him which may prove problematic.

Officially named to the Olympic roster on July 17, Darvish celebrated his selection by striking out 10 in a four-hit complete-game victory over the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles that same night.

"We couldn't afford to lose two in a row," Darvish said after the game.

"I was trying to stop it (a losing streak) when I stepped on the mound."

It took it only 89 pitches to shut down the Eagles, prompting Rakuten manager Katsuya Nomura to say after the game that Japanese baseball had entered the "I-D Generation," referring to his own pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma and Darvish.

Iwakuma has also been good this year, boasting a 13-3 record, the most wins in Japanese baseball, and a 2.14 ERA.

But it is Darvish, not Iwakuma, who may become the face of "Hoshino Japan."

Darvish is 11-4 this season and leads Japanese baseball with eight complete games. His 150 strikeouts are second only to Olympic teammate and Fukuoka Softbank Hawks hurler Toshiya Sugiuchi's 151.

Darvish's 2.07 ERA is the lowest in either league, and Iwakuma is second overall. Hanshin Tigers pitcher Tsuyoshi Shimoyanagi leads the CL at 2.37.

Those numbers lead many to believe Darvish will toe the rubber against the Cubans in Japan's opening game in Beijing. Japan manager Senichi Hoshino, meanwhile, has been noncommittal on the subject.

"Even Darvish could pitch as a reliever," the Japan manager told reporters after the announcement of the Olympic roster. "I'm not going to rule out him pitching for (just) an inning."

Domestic success is no guarantee of greatness in international competition, but Darvish has thrived in pressure situations.

In the 2007 postseason, Darvish was the PL Climax Series MVP after winning two games in a five-game series. He opened the Japan Series with a championship round-tying 13-strikeout game, and it took a perfect game from the Chunichi Dragons to turn him away in Game 5.

Nothing seems to faze the 21-year-old, who continues to elevate his game to even higher levels.

After the Rakuten game last week, Darvish said the Olympic selection never crossed his mind because his only thoughts were on beating the Eagles.

He was also asked how he felt about the Hinomaru (Japanese flag) and the pressure that comes from wearing it on his uniform.

"It's just a picture," was his reply. "I don't feel anything really."

The prospect of facing international batters doesn't seem to bother him much, either.

"I'm pitching against good Japanese batters," Darvish told reporters. "I don't think players from other countries are better than them. So I think I will be able to hold them.

"I think I'm going to make my form better from this point on," Darvish added.

"I have confidence that I will be able to enter (the Olympics) in good shape."

MLB scouts are already salivating over his potential and ESPN recently showcased a large feature on him on its Web Site, which shows Darvish's fame already stretches far beyond Japan's shores.

If he plays a pivotal role in helping Japan win its first Olympic gold medal since baseball became an official Olympic sport in 1992, the Beijing Olympics may be remembered as the moment Yu Darvish was unleashed upon a very suspecting world.

"Rather than talking about those things, there are things we need to do first," Darvish told reporters when asked about Japan's gold medal chances.

"I can only pass the baton to the guys behind me by pitching well."

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this article.



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