It is a fact that the biggest vote of confidence a manager can give a starting pitcher is to give him the ball every fifth day, and one of the things we know about John Farrell is he’s not big on grand pronouncements or magnanimous actions.
But with all the talk about Yu Darvish ahead of his first appearance in Toronto, it was telling that the Toronto Blue Jays manager referred to Kyle Drabek and Drew Hutchison as “our guys” in his pregame media session. It was a sign that in Farrell’s mind, a statute of limitations ought to be in place on whining about the team's halfhearted pursuit of Darvish.
The Blue Jays fan base might have received the message. A crowd of 21,945 showed up at the Rogers Centre to see baseball’s newest bright young thing – nice for a Monday, but not turnstile-spinning. And while Darvish came to North America as a combination ace-cultural icon from Japan, the city’s Japanese community was not in evidence as much as it has done in the past for Hideki Matsui or Ichiro Suzuki. Buzzes? Meh, I’ve seen better.
But my goodness, can Darvish pitch. And just wait until the next time he comes through the Rogers Centre. Wait until he’s comfortable.
“It was an awkward feeling,” Darvish said after the Rangers 4-1 win, the teams fifth in as many starts by him. “Rumour had it [the Blue Jays]were a team that could have posted for me … they could have been my teammates.”
Sent in a day ahead of the rest of his teammates and pitching on five days rest, Darvish worked from the stretch (he has fiddled around with the windup and the stretch since his first outing in spring training, sometimes as a means of maintaining his mechanics, sometimes – well, sometimes just because) and struck out nine Blue Jays while walking two, giving up four hits including his first Major League home run to Edwin Encarnacion, whom he also hit with a pitch. Darvish needed just 97 pitches to put seven innings in the book, after coming into the game averaging a Major League-high 113 pitches. He has a slow-slower-slowest curve, and used his slider to put away four of his strikeouts as well as three cut fastballs. It is unusual to see a starter pitch from the stretch without runners on base, although another Japanese pitcher, Hideo Nomo, pitched a no-hitter by working from the stretch for eight innings after being uncomfortable in the windup in the first inning.
“Right away it caught me off guard,” Blue Jays second baseman Kelly Johnson said of Darvish pitching from the stretch. “I couldn’t remember if he did it to Yunel [Escobar]right in front of me. I was focused more on my timing. I get in there, and I’m like: ‘Is he doing this just for me.’ Someone said he likes to do that when he’s not feeling good in the warmup.”
It will never salve the wounds of the “give us something – anything – to feel good about crowd,” but the fact is starting pitching has not been an issue with the Blue Jays this season. Drabek gave up two runs on five hits while striking out a career-high eight and walking two.
True, the Rangers arrived in their Toronto hotel at 5:30 and, true, Josh Hamilton was out of the lineup with a back issue. But this is still the best team in baseball by a significant length. It has a tendency to make pitchers – good pitchers - appear to shrink on the mound, but if anything Drabek seemed to grow in stature as the game went on.
Drabek rang up five of his strikeouts on curve-balls, one on a two-seam sinker and two more on four-seam fastballs. It was intriguing pitch selection from Drabek and catcher J.P. Arencibia, since much had been made about how the Blue Jays believed Drabek would be better served by concentrating on using a sinker, change-up and curve, and forgetting the four-seamer, cutter and slider.
Yet Drabek showed signs early in the game of some of the mechanical issues that plagued him last season, yanking some of his pitches especially to right-handed hitters. And after Arencibia went to the mound in the second inning with Mike Napoli at the plate, one out a run in and a man on second, Drabek threw consecutive sliders to Rangers catcher Napoli, who grounded out. Drabek survived the second and a rocky start to the third and at one point struck out five consecutive Rangers.
Farrell said that Drabek’s start on Monday and Tuesday’s start for Hutchison against Neftali Feliz will give the Blue Jays “a clear read on what they have to offer against the best in the American League.” He was talking about the Rangers lineup, not the opposite number on the ground, but Farrell concurred that the best Major League pitchers sometimes do pitch up to their opposite number.
“It’s a natural that pitchers might view it like that,” Farrell said. “Against quality starters, runs will be at a premium, and that may mean they bear down.”
That has not been an issue for the Blue Jays starters most of this season. The hitters might want to follow their lead.