Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The number 42 has plenty of significance in baseball lore.
While most of us associate the number with Jackie Robinson and Mariano Rivera (and maybe Mo Vaughn if you grew up rooting for the Boston Red Sox in the 1990s), these digits hold a different meaning for Yu Darvish.
That's how many pitches it took the 25-year-old to get out of the first inning back on April 9, the date of Darvish's much-anticipated major league debut.
Murphy's Law was in full effect that evening in Arlington, Texas, as Darvish ended up surrendering three walks, four base hits, four runs and a wild pitch before the frame mercifully came to a close on a Chone Figgins groundout (the 10th batter of the inning).
Darvish's ERA after one major league inning? 36.00.
His ERA since that horrible first impression? An outstanding 1.13.
Take away that one inning and Yu Darvish might be the best pitcher in baseball this season.
Monday night in a nationally televised game against Toronto, Darvish was in total control, puzzling the Blue Jays for seven innings in front of a crowd of just under 22,000. He finished the evening with nine strikeouts, four hits, one run allowed and just two walks. He exited after throwing just 97 pitches as Mike Adams and Joe Nathan came in to preserve the win for Texas, Darvish's fourth of the year.
Five starts into 2012, Darvish holds a lower season ERA than Justin Verlander (2.41), Felix Hernandez (2.23) and Zack Greinke (3.94). What does that pitching trio have in common? They are the American League's last three Cy Young Award winners.
And it's not like Darvish has been facing the Minnesota Twins every night. Well, he did once. But his other starts came against the Blue Jays, Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees, three of the more dynamic offenses in the league.
Yet, in my 10-team fantasy league, Darvish didn't find a home until the end of the 13th round, where he was reluctantly selected at pick No, 129.
Texas was willing to spend $51.7 million just to negotiate with Darvish this offseason. So, why were fantasy owners so hesitant to draft him?
Unfortunately, our perception of the Japanese leagues has been jaded by the performance of Boston's Daisuke Matsuzaka.
After Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui enjoyed instant success upon switching from Japan to the major leagues, we all expected Matsuzaka to do the same.
Matsuzaka appeared to be the most dominant pitcher on the planet, overwhelming hitters in the 2006 World Baseball Classic and enticing major league teams with rumors about his mysterious "gyroball."
Six years into Matsuzaka's injury-riddled big league career, fantasy owners have almost universally lost faith in the 31-year-old right-hander.
Our frustration from having so many fantasy seasons torn apart by Dice-K's inability to throw strikes reached a boiling point this offseason and we ended up punishing Darvish because of it. We assumed that because Darvish came from the same league as Matsuzaka, that he'd be a flop, too.
The similarities in style made us even more skeptical. Both pitchers have been identified as nibblers (pitchers who work the corners instead of challenging hitters in the strike zone) and both feature a large repertoire of different pitches.
Darvish still nibbles and uses a lot of pitches, but he's enjoying far more success than Matsuzaka has ever had. Darvish's tight curveball is incredibly potent, the velocity on his sinking fastball is strong (94-95 mph on his four- seamer) and he also employs a slower cut fastball (89-90) that's almost impossible for lefties to get a bat on.
Much of the Texas rookie's success can be attributed to two major factors: his deceptive delivery and his penchant for getting ahead in the count.
As Barry Larkin and Nomar Garciaparra discussed extensively Monday night on ESPN, Darvish's delivery makes it near impossible for hitters to identify what pitch he's about to throw. By the time batters have figured out whether Darvish is throwing a fastball or a breaking pitch, it's usually too late.
Darvish has looked more and more comfortable each time he has taken the mound in 2012 and a lot of that has had to do with his ability to throw first-pitch strikes. Twenty of the 27 first pitches Darvish offered on Monday were strikes, by far the highest-percentage he's had since joining the Rangers and a drastic improvement from his first game against Seattle, when Darvish managed to throw first-pitch strikes to just 46.7 percent of the hitters he faced. Just 16 of Darvish's 97 pitches against the Blue Jays came when he was behind in the count.
As awesome as Darvish has been, I think the best is still to come for the young right-hander. After Darvish hit Edwin Encarnacion with a fastball that got away from him in the second inning, Darvish backed off and made sure to put the ball in the strike zone whenever he faced Encarnacion again. Encarnacion responded with a home run and a single in his next two at-bats.
Larkin commented that hitting players is frowned upon in Japan and that's why Darvish let Encarnacion off the hook for the rest of the game. If Darvish can channel his inner Pedro Martinez and get mean, he'll avoid getting taken advantage of by players like Encarnacion in the future.
Of course, there is always the concern that Darvish's success might diminish when he starts facing teams for the second or third time, now that they'll know what to expect. But I think that concern is a bit overblown.
We are living in the information age, with MacBooks, YouTube and DVDs. I'm sure every team that has faced Darvish this season did its homework by watching plenty of video before they faced him. So nobody can attribute all of Darvish's success simply to the "unfamiliarity" factor.
After five games, Darvish has made me a believer. For those of you who stole Darvish in the 13th round this year, enjoy your coup because it won't happen again next season.
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