Yu Darvish’s struggle to get into the wins column recently, could be indicative of problems that could doom the Hokkaido Nippon Fighters’ latest bid to reach the Japan Series.
The team is said to be weighing a plan to deploy the powerful right-hander on short rest during the Pacific League Climax Series, hoping to emulate the Chiba Lotte Marines’ usage of pitcher Yoshihisa Naruse last season, and get three starts out of Darvish during the climax series if needed.
For that to work, the Fighters star will need some help.
Darvish (17-6), the team’s ace and arguably the best pitcher in Japan, has registered just two wins over his last nine starts after racking up 15 in his first 20. Nippon Ham managed to win five times over that span.
That’s not, however, to suggest Darvish is at fault here. The blame in this instance lies at the feet of the Nippon Ham offense.
Pitching and defense are often said to win championships, but it takes more than that alone. The Fighters have to score runs to give their pitchers a chance to carry them to the promised land.
Darvish’s recent outings cast a harsh light on the team’s offensive woes, which have allowed the PL pennant to slip away and probably cost Darvish a shot at a 20-win season.
In the nine starts since winning his 15th game of the year on Aug. 25, Darvish posted a 1.34 ERA and 0.85 WHIP. In 74 innings over that span, he allowed 11 runs, walked 12 batters and struck out 88.
Darvish allowed two runs or fewer in eight of those games and just one run or less in six.
He recorded eight quality starts and in his worst outing, allowed three runs on 10 hits over eight innings while striking out 10 in a 3-1 loss.
Darvish was 2-3 over that stretch, with the Nippon Ham offense scoring an average of 1.8 runs for him.
Nine games is a small sample size, but the team’s production behind its star pitcher highlights its larger problems.
Slugger Sho Nakata, the main offensive weapon, had his worst month of the season in September, and Eiichi Koyano and Atsunori Inaba also saw their production taper off.
Overall, from Aug. 25, to Saturday’s 1-0 win over the Seibu Lions, Nippon Ham scored an average of 2.5 runs per game for its pitchers. Not surprisingly, the team was 11-24-2 over that span.
So if the Fighters can’t win when Darvish is toeing the rubber, what hope do they have of reaching the Japan Series?
Nippon Ham would presumably start Darvish to open the first stage of the climax series.
Assuming the Fighters manage reach the second stage, they’ll face an automatic one-game disadvantage in a road series where the pennant-winning Fukuoka Softbank Hawks will kick things off with some combination of Tsuyoshi Wada (15-5, 1.57 ERA), Toshiya Sugiuchi (8-7, 2.03) and D.J. Houlton (17-6, 2.26) in the first three games.
Even if Darvish wins Game 1 of that series, the offense would have to give the rest of the rotation something to work with against the Hawks’ other two frontline starters.
That would enable the Fighters to either win the series or put the ball in Darvish’s hands for a deciding sixth game.
Everything seems to boil down to Darvish these days. His condition often dictates how good the team will be in the present and the club’s immediate future hinges on whether or not he has a desire to pitch in the major leagues.
In this case, however, it’s the Fighters’ offense that’s in the spotlight. Because if they can’t step up, it won’t matter who is on the mound come playoff time.