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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

SPORTS SCOPE

Mental toughness will be key for Darvish


As was the case with his debut, there was a wealth of both good and bad things to be gleaned from Yu Darvish's second major league start.

Jason Coskrey

He only allowed one earned run — after yielding five in his debut — on Saturday against the Minnesota Twins, though not without a big assist from reliever Robbie Ross, who inherited and cleaned up Darvish's bases-loaded mess in the sixth inning.

Darvish again threw himself into trouble at times, but he showed great poise in extricating himself from troublesome situations relatively unscathed.

His command remained somewhat erratic and he threw 15 first-pitch strikes and drew only nine swinging strikes from the 30 batters he faced. Forty-two of Darvish's 102 pitches were balls, and he walked four batters for the second straight game — something he hadn't done since early in the 2010 season in Japan.

It's still far, far too early to make any judgements about the path his career will take in MLB.

As Darvish acclimates himself to MLB's tighter strike zones, he'll figure out how to get more calls on the edges and how to be more effective going inside against lefties, while getting used to the ball may help alleviate some control issues and so forth.

After one start, he'd already tweaked his windup (which he rarely used in NPB), beginning his motion on Saturday with his hands around chin-level as opposed to bringing them above his head as he did in his first start.

There will be more changes to come, but the most important adjustment Darvish has to make won't be so readily visible.

Because how Darvish reacts mentally to adversity will likely go a long way toward determining how fondly the Texas Rangers look back at their $110 million-plus investment six years from now.

In Japan, Darvish was the big fish and everyone knew it. He brought a level of intimidation with him to the mound, and for hitters failure was often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

While with the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in NPB, Darvish could leave a batter looking at an impossibly-placed strike or simply blow something by him, seemingly on a whim.

Command caught up with freakish talent in 2007, when Darvish won the first of his two Pacific League MVP Awards by going 15-5 with a 1.82 ERA and 210 strikeouts. From 2007 on, Darvish didn't end a season with an ERA above 1.88, a walk rate higher than 2.23 or a strikeout rate below 8.26.

Now the tables have turned. Darvish is the new kid on the block, and the bullies in his new neighborhood are bigger and badder.

News photo
One of the guys: Yu Darvish will have to adjust more than just his mechanics to succeed in Major League Baseball. KYODO

He's no longer going to always be the best player on the field and immense talent alone won't always push him through to the next inning.

Which is how he wanted it. He went to MLB because he wanted the challenge of facing the best, of jumping in the deep-end of the pool. MLB is deeper than NPB, there are 18 more teams to scout and more good players to go around. That can create a fair amount of adversity for any player.

Darvish has never been short on confidence, even bordering on cockiness at times, and his mental fortitude will be essential.

The real litmus test comes if it takes a few more starts for him to reign in his control issues, or if a bad stretch leads to "boos" instead of "Yuuus" from fans in America's what-have-you-done-for-me-lately sports culture. Fans who automatically expect their high-priced acquisition to deliver the world on a silver platter with no questions asked.

That can weigh on a young pitcher, never mind one adjusting to a new language, culture and league. Some players have thrived under similar pressure, while others have been bogged down by it.

If Darvish doesn't have the mental moxie to overcome the coming challenges, he'll sink.

Darvish has all the physical tools, the smarts and the repertoire to succeed in the majors.

If he's also really as mentally strong as he seemed during his years in Japan, then the Rangers and their fans may soon begin to get their money's worth.



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