A tired shoulder has sidelined Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher Yu Darvish since Aug. 22, following his worst outing of the season against the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.

Darvish gave up six runs in eight innings of that loss and has since spent some time at the team’s practice facility working on his form.

Before Darvish went down, he was the favorite to be crowned the Sawamura Award winner for the second time in three seasons.

Now that there appears to be a small chink in the armor, there is a chance for another player to swoop in and claim Japanese baseball’s top prize for pitchers.

Darvish has been his usual dominating self this season, compiling a 14-5 record with a sparkling 1.70 ERA in 169 innings. Through 21 starts, Darvish is tied with Seibu Lions pitcher Hideaki Wakui for the most complete games (eight) thrown in Japanese baseball.

Additionally, opponents are batting an NPB-low .185 against Darvish, who has pitched two shutouts this season and allowed just 110 hits.

The Fighters hurler won the award, along with the PL MVP, in 2007 and only Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles star Hisashi Iwakuma’s 20-win season last year prevented a repeat.

Darvish’s shoulder strain is a cause for concern for the Fighters, who have taken their time to get the 23-year-old back up to speed.

A quick return is likely to make Darvish again the favorite for the award, with Wakui chief among his Pacific League rivals for the prize.

Wakui is 13-5 with a 2.28 ERA through 22 starts while helping the Lions stay in the race for the final spot in the PL Climax Series.

The head of the Seibu rotation also has more strikeouts (169) and a higher strikeout per nine innings (K/9) ratio (8.76) than Darvish (8.57) so far this season.

Looking past the wins and more into their individual effectiveness, one separator between the two is their ability to keep runners off the bases.

A measure of both hurlers’ walks plus hits per innings pitched (WHIP) shows Darvish is superior in that category, posting a 0.87 WHIP to Wakui’s 1.11.

Wakui has a high number of walks (62) but has shown the ability to work his way out of trouble. He’s also been a workhorse over the last few weeks, throwing 161, 133, 162 and 140 pitches over his past four starts. Seibu’s durable star leads Japanese baseball with 173 2/3 innings pitched.

Other PL pitchers in the running include the Eagles’ Masahiro Tanaka and former winner Toshiya Sugiuchi of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks.

Tanaka is 12-4 with a 1.75 ERA (through Wednesday) and 136 strikeouts. Sugiuchi is 13-3 with a 2.49 ERA.

Among Central League pitchers, Kazuki Yoshimi of the Chunichi Dragons is probably the league’s best hope of ending the PL’s four-year hold on the award.

Yoshimi is the standout in the CL with a 13-5 record and a 1.78 ERA. He is tied for the CL lead with five complete games and leads the league with four shutouts and three complete games pitched without yielding a walk.

The Dragons ace has a 0.95 WHIP and a K/9 of 7.37 in 151 1/3 innings in 21 starts.

Tokyo Yakult Swallows pitcher Shohei Tateyama (14-4) leads the league in wins, but his 3.43 ERA is unattractive. Ditto for Yomiuri’s Seth Greisinger, who is 12-5 with a 3.31 ERA. Since 2001, only Seibu’s Daisuke Matsuzaka (3.60) and Chunichi’s Kenshin Kawakami (3.32) have won the award with an ERA above 3.00.

Yomiuri’s Dicky Gonzalez began the year on the farm team, but has been among the game’s best, going 12-1 with a 2.14 ERA and a K/9 of 6.37. Gonzalez, however, will likely finish the season with far fewer innings than he needs to be considered.

With a lot of games left to play, Darvish would seem to have the inside track on the award, with an ERA under 2.00, a WHIP under 1.00 and one of the highest strikeout ratios in Japanese baseball.

Since Kawakami won the honor in 2004, the Sawamura Award has been at home in the PL, going to Hawks pitchers Sugiuchi (2005) and Kazumi Saito (2006), Darvish (2007) and Iwakuma (2008).

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