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Young Nippon Ham hurler Darvish tipped to be top for a long time

by Stephen Ellsesser

SAPPORO — Yu Darvish showed he was ready for the big show Wednesday night, and at his age, he is going to be around for plenty more.

Darvish went the distance in the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters’ series opening victory over the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, shutting down a confident order that had scored 17 runs in its final two games with Seibu in the first-stage playoffs.

Against Darvish, however, Softbank was held to a run and seven hits over nine innings.

“He’s got the poise to be one of those big-time pitchers,” Fighters designated hitter Fernando Seguignol said. “He’s a guy who isn’t bothered by anything around him. He can be that good in front of one fan or 100,000 fans.”

The Iranian-Japanese was good enough in front of 42,382, striking out 11.

Manager Trey Hillman said Darvish’s ability to feed off the crowd was why the Texan stuck with his 21-year-old starter in the ninth inning.

Darvish has been a bit Jekyll and Hyde at times this season, following a gem with a bomb and vice versa. When he shut out the Hawks in his second start of the season, it was a rebound from a three-inning outing in which Chiba Lotte had scored six runs in three innings to begin the right-hander’s season.

Darvish made 14 appearances during his rookie campaign in 2005, going 5-5 with a 3.53 ERA. This season, Darvish has been much improved, going 12-5 with a 2.89 ERA in 25 games. Darvish had 115 strikeouts and 64 walks in 149 2/3 innings during the regular season.

“He’s a lot more firm this year,” said Hawks first baseman Julio Zuleta, who went 1-for-3 with a single and an intentional walk against Darvish on Wednesday. “It’s something we’ve got to study because he’s not the same pitcher he was last year.”

Darvish was 2-0 with a 0.00 ERA against the Hawks during the regular season, and he wasn’t far off that pace in Game 1.

“We could not make the adjustments, but for the next game if we see him, we can focus on what he’s doing,” Zuleta said. “You’ve just got to hit him if you can.”

Seguignol said any team facing Darvish for the rest of the postseason, whether it would be the Hawks if they were to take the series to Fukuoka and he came back on short rest, or the Chunichi Dragons in the Japan Series, will have a difficult time.

“To be a young guy, his demeanor, how he can carry himself, is amazing,” Seguignol said. “We saw him this year and last year, and even seeing him pitch in high school, he showed he is a guy who can handle the big games.”

FAMOUS LAST WORDS?: As he walked off the field after taking batting practice, Hawks third baseman Jolbert Cabrera said, “I bet you we win tonight.”

SHINJO WATCH: Through three days of practice and Game 1 of the second stage, Nippon Ham center fielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo has kept his antics to a minimum.

Since announcing he would retire at the end of the season, the wildly popular Shinjo has kept fans on their toes, making an entrance from above on a rope and platform earlier this season at Sapporo Dome to donning a belt buckle with scrolling messages during the Sanyo All-Star Series, to wearing a collared shirt under his jersey.

The collared shirt lives on, however, as some Nippon Ham ball boys have worn red collared shirts this week in Sapporo, paying tribute to Shinjo and his signature color.

HILLMAN IN THE NEWS: According to an MLB.com report, Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels has confirmed Hillman as a candidate to replace the fired Buck Showalter as the team’s manager.

Daniels has confirmed Don Wakamatsu, who has been the Rangers bench coach for the past four seasons, is also a candidate. The report said New York Mets third base coach Manny Acta and Oakland Athletics third base coach Ron Washington are candidates, but Daniels did not confirm the pair.

“Trey is a guy I have a lot of respect for,” Daniels told MLB.com. “I’ve known him from the time he was here and have stayed in touch with him. We’ll wait until they are done with their season, I don’t want to cause any more distractions.”

After answering questions for the media last Friday on the eve of the Pacific League’s postseason, Hillman said he would not discuss the matter until after the season.