In the Game 1 update to the Rangers-Astros series preview we published on Monday, I wrote of the Astros, "you have to be a bit troubled by their 13 strikeouts in eight innings -- if they whiff that often against Harrison, what are they going to do against the real strikeout pitchers, like Game 2 starter Yu Darvish?"
I'd like to say that I was showing my typical sharp-eyed prescience, but a predilection for striking out doesn't necessarily mean instant no-hitter -- there were five no-hitters tossed in 2010, and none of them were against the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that struck out a record 1,529 times, 130 more than the second-most whiff-happy team, the 2001 Brewers, who didn't have a no-hitter pitched against them either. In fact, the well-traveled Edwin Jackson pitched a no-hitter for the Diamondbacks that year against the Tampa Bay Rays, whose measly 1,292 strikeouts are merely the 21st-most in history.
No, what I was observing was something that took no great insight, something that was obvious in spite of the Astros winning that first game easily -- this team is as bad as advertised. Last year it struck out 1,365 times (sixth-most all time, for those keeping score at home) and has since added free-swingers like Carlos Pena (182 Ks last year), Chris Carter (157 in 494 at-bats split between Triple-A and the majors), and Rick Ankiel, who doesn't strike out quite as often as the preceding pair but maintains a strikeout-walk ratio that most would consider excellent -- if he were still a pitcher. Justin Maxwell (114 Ks in 315 at-bats) and Brett Wallace (73 in 229) are still on hand as well.
Given their lineup composition, the Astros are going to have trouble making contact all season long. It stands to reason that when a pitcher like Darvish, who is just plain hard to hit, comes along, this particular collection of batters is likely to spend most of the game dragging its bats back to the bench. And that's just what happened tonight, as Darvish got within one out of a perfect game, striking out 14 before giving up a hit to shortstop Marwin Gonzalez. Again, that's not to say that a perfect game should have been expected, because it still takes excellent pitching and a lot of luck, but only that had one happened it would have been perfectly understandable in retrospect.
Darvish's rise to dominance, as opposed to occasional excellence, is one of the keys to the Rangers' season. Darvish struggled to tame his eight-pitch arsenal and mechanics through the first two-thirds of the season last year (despite a strong April ERA, his walk rate was still 4.6 per nine that month), but he simplified both down the stretch and took off in August. In the first 20 starts of his rookie year, Darvish struck out 145 hitters in 127-1/3 innings (10.2 per nine) but also walked 70 (4.9 per nine), and in eight of those starts he came out before the seventh inning. His ERA was 4.38, about average for an AL starter last year, or maybe a little better than that given where he pitched. In his final nine starts, Darvish was a changed man. He walked 19 in 64 innings (2.7 per nine), struck out 76 (10.7), pitched into the seventh inning or beyond in all nine games, and had an ERA of 2.95.
The Darvish of August and September is the pitcher the Rangers need to have around for a solid six months. That's not because of how much the Rangers are paying him or some unrealistic notion that he has to live up to his career 1.72 ERA in Japan, where the level of play was once estimated to be roughly akin to our own Double-A baseball, but simply because this is a team that has been in desperate need of a number one starter, an ace.
The Rangers had posted just one winning record in nine seasons when the current team began to come together in 2009. That team's best pitcher was Kevin Millwood, a 34-year-old who posted his first ERA below 4.52 in three years. The Rangers correctly recognized the result as a fluke and traded him out of town, though they didn't get much back. The next year, they went to the World Series behind converted reliever C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, a 30-year-old journeyman just back from Japan, and one-hit wonder Tommy Hunter. The Rangers evaluated their chances of winning with that hand and wisely traded for Cliff Lee along the way. Lee would certainly count as an ace by most definitions. He dominated in the first two rounds of the postseason, but went 0-2 against the Giants in the World Series and decamped to the Philadelphia Phillies' home for the aged, where he rests to this day.
In 2011, the Rangers had one of the strongest starting rotations in team history, with Wilson, Lewis, and the emerging trio of Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, and Alexi Ogando. Holland, with a 3.06 ERA in the second half, his 8-1/3 shutout innings in Game 4 of the World Series, and pencil mustache, threatened to become a postseason sensation. Yet, none of the five quite fit the picture of a number-one starter. Holland was inconsistent and would struggle with shoulder fatigue in 2012. Lewis turned into a home run machine in 2011, then tore the flexor tendon in his pitching elbow in July of the following season, an injury from which he has not yet returned. Ogando, with his very slight build, was unhittable in early '11 but proved not to have the stamina for starting; he would spend all of '12 in the bullpen. Wilson took Arte Moreno's dollars and blew town. Closer Neftali Feliz was shifted to starting, like Wilson before him, and promptly blew out his elbow. The Rangers traded for Ryan Dempster and dragged Roy Oswalt out of his Mississippi bolt-hole, with mixed results.
That leaves Harrison, who was very good in 2011 and very, very good in 2012. He's also a pitch-to-contact guy, and as we saw in the season's first game, pitch-to-contact guys are not the safest bets for year-in, year-out consistency, simply because bad things can happen on balls in play. Harrison should be good again this year, but number-one pitcher good? That's far from a certainty.
The Rangers came quite close to winning the World Series in 2011, close enough that you can't say that any one factor doomed them. That being said, strikeout pitching correlates with postseason success. The reason why is obvious: cherchez la balls in play. Only the best teams play in the postseason. The best teams presumably have good hitters. It's a bad idea to let good hitters make contact; better to leave them standing at the plate. That's where Yu Darvish comes in.
So let us not mourn too strongly the Marwin Gonzalez single that deprived Darvish of a historic pitching performance. First, perfect game/no-no or not, it was a helluva performance. Second, given his stuff, he'll likely make another bid ere long. Think of poor Dave Stieb (the rightful claimant to the "Best Pitcher of the 1980s" rubric whose place has been criminally usurped by Jack Morris), who had four no-hitters broken up in the ninth inning before finally going all the way in 1990. Like Stieb, Darvish will climb this hill again.
Forget all that, though. Put it aside. History wasn't thwarted on Tuesday night, it was made. No, we didn't get to put another notch on the all-time perfect game belt -- but we saw something far more important: We witnessed Yu Darvish serving notice that the Rangers have an ace, and that the pitcher he became last fall is here to stay. A no-hitter, even a perfect game, is just a one-off, a fluke, but Darvish pitching this well all year? That's a development that could alter the entire season.