The prospect of facing Yu Darvish sparked more curiosity than conversation among Washington Nationals hitters. Talk served no purpose. “What can you say?” said Greg Dobbs, an 11-year veteran. Few of them had faced Darvish, but they knew about his infinite arsenal, his jitterbug fastball and his fill-a-thimble command. They knew he was coming, and they anticipated the challenge. “Everybody has been kind of looking at it,” hitting coach Rick Schu said Sunday morning. “Guys are excited.”
The hitters studied Darvish’s pitches, formulated plans and prepared with eagerness to test themselves against the shape-shifting Japanese ace, a singular baseball creature. By the end of their 2-0 loss to the Texas Rangers, after Darvish had stripped and sold them for parts, the Nationals knew they would never again look upon a meeting with Darvish with excitement.
“There’s times when you’ve got to tip your cap,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “Today was one of them.”
Curiosity may have permeated the Nationals’ clubhouse in the morning. Awe filled their dugout in the afternoon. Darvish fired eight scoreless innings, allowed five hits and struck out 12. Nationals starter Tanner Roark kept pace for six innings, but in the seventh he threw an 0-1 change-up that lacked conviction and hung at the letters, and Leonys Martin belted it into the home bullpen. One mistake was one too many.
“You can’t do anything about it,” Roark said. “I’m not trying to go out there and be perfect.”
Darvish is every kind of pitcher all at once. He can be a flamethrower, a tactician or a snake charmer, sometimes in the course of the same at-bat. He struck out Ian Desmond with a 95-mph fastball and LaRoche with a 59-mph curveball. LaRoche lingered in the batter’s box, his bat on his shoulder, frozen, trying to reckon with what he had just seen.
“It was interesting,” LaRoche said. “I thought it was going off the backstop when he released it. I just thought it slipped. And then it starts dropping in.”
When Darvish needed a strikeout most, after a bleeder and a bloop put runners on the corners with one out in the sixth inning, he buried a 90-mph cutter in the dirt, and Wilson Ramos swung over it. He whiffed every Nationals starter except Denard Span, who smacked two hits. The velocities of his 12 strikeout pitches looked like the work of a random number generator: 83, 95, 77, 82, 94, 91, 59, 81, 80, 74, 90, 80.
Nationals left fielder Nate McLouth faced Darvish two years ago as a Baltimore Oriole in the American League wild-card game. He determined he would use the recollection as his preparation and avoid video. “You watch the highlights, all they show is him striking guys out,” McLouth said. “Maybe not the best thing to watch before you go face him.”
Darvish’s repertoire left the Nationals scrambling even before they took the field. They needed to prepare for a sinking fastball, four-seam fastball, slider, change, splitter, cutter, curve and slower curve. Dobbs believed it would be imperative to identify which pitches to take with less than two strikes, to keep the count in their favor to prevent Darvish from selecting any pitch. Darvish makes that task harder than anyone. He can add or subtract speed in subtle amounts, and he can manipulate the angle of break in his slider. Even when a hitter sees a fastball coming, he may not know which type, or how it will behave.
When Nationals hitters shambled back to the dugout, they remarked about the funky leg kick and disorientating delay in his wind-up. They searched for ways to explain his pitches to teammates. “He’s got stuff moving every different direction, at all different speeds,” LaRoche said. “It makes it tough.”
Manager Matt Williams told hitters to remember they had “true authority” over the at-bat — they could pick which pitches to swing at and which to take. He said hitters should forget trying to decipher pitches and simply choose one side of the plate to focus on.
Schu wondered if Darvish would have his typical command after a stiff neck scratched him from his scheduled start five days prior. He noticed Darvish tended to throw a preponderance of fastballs the first time through the opposing lineup. If Darvish fell into trouble, Schu said, he would lean on his splitter and slider. He wanted them to attack fastballs early.
“Get him before he starts inventing pitches on us,” Schu said.
But Darvish spotted his fastball so well, with so many different actions, that the Nationals still could not hit it. He threw darting cutters and diving sinkers and electric four-seamers, to all quadrants of the strike zone. He put the Nationals on the defensive. There was no attacking Yu Darvish.
“It’s tough when you’ve got to worry about 94, and you’ve got to also sit back on 60,” Span said. “For hitters, it’s all about timing. Any time a pitcher can disrupt your timing, they got you where they want you.”
Span led off with a double, whacking a 91-mph sinker into the right field corner. The Nationals stranded him when Ramos struck out, buckled by an 83-mph curveball that snapped over the inside corner.
Ramos’s strikeout started a stretch in which Darvish struck out five consecutive batters. He finished those hitters with an 83-mph curve, a 95-mph fastball, a 77-mph curve, an 82-mph slider and a 94-mph fastball. Span broke the streak with a single to right, but Darvish ended the third blowing a 91-mph cutter past Jayson Werth. McLouth said the Nationals needed to remember every run would be precious, and in the first inning they stole one. With two outs and runners on the corners, Alex Rios broke from first base. Donnie Murphy took the pitch, and once Ramos fired to second, Elvis Andrus dashed home from third base.
Ramos’s throw did not beat Rios, but he slid off second base, and Danny Espinosa kept his glove affixed to Rios’s shin. The umpire called Rios out, which ended the inning. At home, the plate umpire ruled that Andrus had crossed before the out, and therefore the run counted.
Both Rangers Manager Ron Washington and Williams took exception. Washington argued that Rios should be safe, and Williams thought the tag occurred before Andrus touched the dish. And so they both challenged the same play. Both rulings favored the Nationals — Rios was still out, but the run no longer counted.
The Nationals had caught a break, but it would hardly matter. Dobbs compared facing Darvish to hitting against Felix Hernandez or Justin Verlander, an experience that stirs “that tiny, extra hint of adrenaline.” McLouth said it would be fun to test himself against the best in the game. Schu believed the Nationals had already risen to similar challenges when they beat Johnny Cueto and Jose Fernandez.
They all came to the same realization. There is no else like him, and nothing could prepare them for Yu Darvish.
“Come back Tuesday,” LaRoche said, “and forget about it.”
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