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Young star Darvish impresses Dragons

by Jason Coskrey

SAPPORO — One day after Yu Darvish put on one of the greatest shows in Japan Series history the Chunichi Dragons were still a little awe-struck.

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham ace pitched a complete game and matched a Japan Series record with 13 strikeouts on Saturday, leading the Fighters to a 3-1 victory in Game 1 of the Japan Series.

“He’s got a really fast fastball,” Chunichi veteran Kazuyoshi Tatsunami said before Game 2.

“His slider bites really well and he’s tall so he has the angles. I’ve never seen a slider like that from a right-handed pitcher. He’s the best pitcher I have ever faced,” the 20-year veteran added.

Darvish was dominating for most of the night, sometimes baffling the Dragons with his location while simply overpowering them in other instances.

“He’s got more power pitches than last year,” Dragons shortstop Hirokazu Ibata said. “When a guy pitches like he did yesterday, you can’t get hits.”

Darvish has shown rapid improvement in each season since his professional debut in 2005 and is one of the rising superstars of Japanese baseball.

After going 5-5 with a 3.53 ERA in his first season, Darvish finished 12-5 with a 2.89 ERA in 2006. He improved on those numbers this season with a 15-5 record and led Japanese baseball with 210 strikeouts and his 1.82 ERA was the second-lowest in Nippon Professional Baseball.

“He’s a lot better than last year,” Ibata said. “That’s something I expected. His pitches have a lot of movement. So it’s not just a 150 kph fastball, which makes it hard to make contact.”

In three seasons, Darvish has also become one of the premier big-game pitchers in Japanese baseball. Last season, he threw a complete-game shutout against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks in Game 1 of the second stage of the PL’s Climax Series.

After falling to the Dragons in Game 1 of the ’06 Japan Series, Darvish bounced back with six strikeouts in seven-plus innings to win the series-clinching fifth game.

This season, Darvish began the playoffs with a complete-game win over the Chiba Lotte Marines in Game 1 of the second stage of the PL Climax Series. He followed that with 6 2/3 strong innings in Game 5 of that series to beat Lotte ace Yoshihisa Naruse in a matchup of the two best pitchers in the league and earn the PL Climax Series MVP award.

Boosted by those successes Darvish is pitching with a high level of confidence.

“Not only today, but I felt we wouldn’t lose in the Climax Series either,” Darvish said after Game 1. “Because we won the pennant and it would have been such a pity if we had lost. This stage is actually less pressure.”

Darvish handled the pressure admirably in Game 1. In fact one of the few mistakes he made came after the game during the postgame press conference.

He stated that he would like the series to return to Sapporo before likely realizing it would take a couple of Dragons victories for that to happen.

“I don’t mind clinching the championship in Nagoya,” Darvish said. “Hopefully we can do it here at Sapporo Dome . . . although we don’t want the series to (go) that far.”

Staff writer Kaz Nagatsuka contributed to this story.