Leading man: Rangers rely on Yu's dominant presence
Darvish's steady arm, experience strengthen foundation for pitching squad in flux
BOSTON -- Alexi Ogando is in the bullpen rather than the rotation, and he is not crazy about the idea.
"That's not what I want, but it's not my decision," Ogando said. "Whatever they ask me to do, I'll do the best I can."
That's all any Rangers pitcher can do during a crazy April, when roles are still undefined and nobody knows more than a few days ahead of time who is going to be on the mound. The Rangers know that Colby Lewis is ready to pitch in the Majors for the first time in 21 months, but he is treading into unknown medical territory because of his hip replacement surgery.
Matt Harrison is on the comeback trail after twice having surgery on his back a year ago, and he could be back by the end of April. So could Joe Saunders, once his bruised left ankle is healed. What that would mean to Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross is a mystery in their hopes of remaining starting pitchers rather than going back to the bullpen.
Through all the craziness, there is still Yu Darvish, who came off the disabled list Sunday and pitched against the Rays as if he had never experienced even the slightest stiffness in his neck. The Rangers had lost the two previous nights, but Darvish responded with seven scoreless innings in a pitching duel against Alex Cobb. Texas scored three in the final two innings against Tampa Bay's bullpen and left Tropicana Field with a 3-0 victory.
So the Rangers have had one losing streak, and Darvish put a stop to it -- a quick, early reminder of what he means to this pitching staff. Any club can use a No. 1 starter, but it seems imperative for the Rangers, with everything that has transpired with their pitching staff, and there is no doubt that Darvish is the one who needs to be the dominating presence at the front of the rotation.
The Rangers have felt that way for two years, ever since they paid $107 million to bring Darvish over from Japan, but the need appears greater now than ever before.
"He is the most experienced of our starters," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "We look to him to eat innings. We need him to give us quality innings. He can be our guy to save the bullpen. Your bullpen is only as good as your rotation, and your rotation is only as good as your bullpen. They go hand in hand. But if you have to pick up four or five innings a night out of your bullpen, that's tough on anybody."
Darvish was certainly top-of-the-rotation worthy in 2013. He was 13-9 with a 2.83 ERA and a Major League-leading 277 strikeouts, while finishing second in the American League Cy Young Award voting. But the Rangers were also just 9-14 in Darvish's final 23 starts. A lack of run support didn't help matters as he had a 2.78 ERA in that stretch. But 9-14 is still 9-14.
There were indications in Spring Training that Darvish might be better this season. He was over the back problems that bothered him in the final month of last season, he was in excellent condition and he showed significant progress in fulfilling the Rangers' mandate of improving his fastball command.
"He came into Spring Training ahead of everybody," Maddux said. "He really busted his tail this winter. I do see a player more confident in his surroundings than in the past. Nothing is new to him. He knows he is one of the top pitchers in the league."
The Rangers are eager to see how all that plays out in the regular season. The stiffness in his neck delayed the New World Symphony, but only for a few days, and Darvish was fabulous in Sunday's debut.
"I was a little fatigued the next day, but now I'm fine," he said.
That is enough for Darvish. He is not interested in talking about big goals, being an ace or taking a leadership role on the staff. Darvish is a reluctant leader.
"I don't consider myself a leader," he said. "The only thing I'm concerned about is not skipping my spot in the rotation and staying healthy."
Darvish is available for consultation if needed. But just following his lead is beneficial enough for a young pitcher.
"I like watching his work ethic and his routine," Scheppers said. "It gives me a good example to learn from. The guy has been successful and stayed healthy for the most part. The way he carries himself -- he's not a rah-rah guy -- is very similar to Adrian Beltre. He is a quiet leader. You respect his work ethic and how he carries himself."
In Darvish's last start against the Rays, he struck out the first two hitters of the game. That gave him 500 strikeouts in his career as he became the fastest starting pitcher in Major League history to reach that level. The cap Darvish has worn has been donated to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
It is the cap of the pitcher the Rangers need now more than ever to be their No. 1 guy. They need Darvish to be the undisputed staff leader from start to finish.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.