ARLINGTON, Texas — If you didn’t know Yu Darvish hadn’t pitched in 659 days, nothing about his performance Saturday would have indicated that he was making his first start since he had Tommy John surgery 14 months ago.
Darvish didn’t look any different than he did in any of his first three seasons with the Texas Rangers, when he was among the best pitchers in baseball and made three All-Star teams. The 29-year-old Darvish dominated the Pittsburgh Pirates as he allowed one run on three hits with a walk and seven strikeouts.
“It was about as electric stuff as I’ve seen since I’ve been in the big leagues,” catcher Bobby Wilson said. “It was so impressive the way he came out and pumped his heater in there — 97 and 98 with sink — and he threw all of his pitches.
“He had a good curveball, a good slider and a good cutter, and he struck [John] Jaso out with a changeup on the last pitch he threw. When he’s on the mound, the electricity in the ballpark is heightened so much. It excited everybody.”
Darvish allowed a hit to Jaso, the first batter he faced, then he went to work on Pittsburgh’s lineup in the 87 degree heat. He didn’t allow another hit until the fifth inning.
When he struck Andrew McCutchen out on a slider, the sellout crowd of 46,950 responded with chants of “Yuuuuu!” They did the same when he slowly walked off the field at the end of the first inning.
Ideally, the Rangers wanted Darvish to throw between 85 and 90 pitches, which is why the club has been emphasizing the need for Darvish to pitch to contact instead of trying to accumulate strikeouts.
It’s not an easy sell. After all, we’re talking about a dude who had 277 strikeouts in 2013, second in franchise history behind Nolan Ryan’s 301 in 1989.
Darvish likes few things more than to retire a hitter by having him wave helplessly at an 80 mph slider after dealing with 96 mph fastballs in the first part of an at-bat. That said, the Rangers want Darvish pitching into the seventh inning, and the only way that’s going to happen is if he’s economical with his pitches.
He did a pretty good job of that against Pittsburgh, as he threw 81 pitches in five innings. He was certainly capable of pitching the sixth inning, but the Rangers are going to be cautious with him.
Pittsburgh scored its only run against Darvish in the fifth, an inning that could be described as stressful. The Pirates turned a single, a stolen base and a two-strike, two-out single into their only run. Darvish struck Jaso out on three pitches to end the inning — and his night.
“We had a pitch count on him, and we talked about it,” manager Jeff Banister said. “We talked to him about how he felt and where his body was. It was a warm, humid night. He used a lot of energy, and it was a lot of excitement for him. We just felt like it wasn’t worth the risk to push it another inning.”
Darvish didn’t argue.
“Physically, I felt like I could go on more innings,” he said, “but mentally, I was like, ‘OK, I’m done here.’ I was good.”
Darvish, who had surgery in spring 2015, missed the entire 2015 season after missing the final seven weeks of the 2014 season because of elbow discomfort. He had a 1-1 record with a 0.90 ERA in five rehab starts with the Double-A Frisco Rough Riders and Triple-A Round Rock Express. He finished rehab with 10 consecutive scoreless innings while holding minor league batters to a .132 batting average.
Darvish said his first rehab start was more emotional than his return to the mound in Arlington. He used those starts to put together a good outing against Pittsburgh.
Understand, it was a good lineup that Darvish dominated Saturday. The Pirates had been hitting better than .330 as a team in their previous 11 games and had scored at least five runs in each of the previous five games, but they never came close to figuring Darvish out.
He let his fastball work for him and complemented it with a slider and occasional curveball. In the first inning, he threw 12 fastballs, clocked at 94, 95, 93, 96, 96, 96, 98, 98, 95, 95 and 95. But it was Darvish’s ability to change speeds that kept Pittsburgh’s hitters off-balance.
In the third inning, Darvish struck Starling Marte out on three pitches: a 93 mph fastball, an 81 mph slider and a 95 mph fastball.
“When I can throw 100 pitches,” Darvish said through an interpreter, “That’s when I can say I’m back.”