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Darvish shines despite injury

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Yu Darvish went into the game in his worst shape, but left one of the best impressions of his legend-in-the-making career.

The Fighters ace electrified fans by making an unexpected comeback to the mound in Sunday’s Game 2 of the ongoing Japan Series, helping the Hokkaido Nippon Ham tied the series with a 4-2 victory over the Yomiuri Giants at Sapporo Dome.

“I was about 50 percent,” admitted the 23-year-old right-hander after the game. “But I was able to make it 70-80 because of the cheering from the fans.”

But this much was evident: All the spectators could tell that he wasn’t his usual self, that he didn’t possess his dazzling array of overpowering and off-speed pitches. Instead, Darvish adjusted his approach and simplified things for himself, too. For example, he didn’t use his signature dynamic pitching mechanics and made his stride much shorter than usual so he wouldn’t aggravate his injured lower back.

“I actually threw just with my arm, but it went better,” Darvish said with a laugh.

The normally undaunted Darvish used the word “anxiety” several times to describe his mind-set upon entering the game. But by pitching exceptionally carefully, he held the merciless Kyojin batters in check more than he anticipated.

“Considering my current condition, it was far better than I thought I would do,” said Darvish, who went 15-5 with 167 strikeouts in 182 innings this season.

Darvish, who had not faced live batting since Sept. 20, added that he could not wipe away the worry of facing the Yomiuri offense, and was looking to reproduce the form that had shut down the Central League champions’ bats in the past.

“I didn’t really know what to do, and I was wondering who’s done well against them,” Darvish said. “Then I came up with (Saitama Seibu Lions’ Takayuki) Kishi in last year’s Japan Series. I watched the way he mixed his pitches and what kind of pitches he was using on YouTube today.”

Darvish relied on a lot of breaking balls, though. Many times he used off-speed curveballs, which is Kishi’s trademark out pitch.

The days prior to Sunday’s game were like a soap opera for the talented hurler. Some sports papers reported that he was probably going to pitch in Game 2, while others said it was only a slight possibility.

And the reporters stalked Darvish and pitching coaches Masato Yoshii and Kazuyuki Atsuzawa every time they walked through the dugout, rather than watching what was happening on the field during the pre-game practices.

But the decision was all set long before those reports. He said he was told he would start the game if his physical condition enabled him to do so.

Darvish said he wanted to completely shut out the speculation until it was actually announced.

“I was going to surprise people,” Darvish said, chuckling. “But it worked well because we were able to make the Giants conscious of it.”

The Giants’ Yoshitomo Tani said: “He was tough to hit because he was making (arm) angles for his pitches.”

Darvish, meanwhile, said he was shaken into action by his World Baseball Classic teammate Hisashi Iwakuma during the Pacific League Climax Series second stage.

Iwakuma made a sudden relief appearance on the hill after just one day’s rest as his Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles were on the verge of elimination from the series.

“Yeah, that gave me a little push to come through and pitch,” Darvish said.

Now with Darvish back in the spotlight, the Fighters’ chances of winning the NPB championship have certainly improved.

Yet skipper Masataka Nashida said that he wouldn’t make any quick decision on whether and when he would use the hurler next.

“We need some time to evaluate,” Nashida said. “We’re going to quietly watch him. So just leave him alone for now, please.”