Darvish has pitched nine games for his new team, but the truth is that none of them really counted.
There was never any pretense otherwise. From the moment the Japanese right-hander was acquired at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, he knew he was here to pitch in October. Specifically, he was here to pitch in October in the kind of game he will pitch Monday night at Chase Field opposite Zack Greinke in Game 3 of the National League division series, which the Dodgers lead 2-0.
Darvish will be called on to close out the best-of-five series, but his responsibilities extend beyond the upcoming game. As the team’s greatest X-factor, his performance could determine how this postseason plays out for the Dodgers. If he can be their second frontline pitcher alongside Clayton Kershaw, he can move the Dodgers within arm’s reach of their first World Series in 29 years.
The Dodgers are already counting on him to make Kershaw better. The addition of Darvish to a rotation that includes Rich Hill and Alex Wood is what made the Dodgers comfortable enough to declare they wouldn’t use Kershaw on three days’ rest again at this stage of the postseason.
It’s a considerable burden, enough so that when Darvish was asked about it at his introductory news conference two months ago, he repliled, “I’m trying not to think about it.”
The efforts were in vain. Every start he made and every bullpen session he threw were part of what was essentially a two-month training camp for the postseason.
He was sensational in his first start with the Dodgers, blanking the New York Mets over seven innings. He also won his next start, which was against the Diamondbacks, in Arizona. Over his next four starts, however, he was 0-3 with a 7.85 earned-run average.
“They brought me over for the playoffs, but I might not pitch in them if I continue like this,” Darvish said to reporters in Japanese. “I was worried about that.”
In retrospect, he thinks he started to turn around his season in the last game of that four-start stretch, when he allowed five runs in 41/3 innings in a loss to the Colorado Rockies. That’s when he made a subtle but important change to his delivery in response to Kershaw and other Dodgers telling him he might have been overthinking on the mound.
“You could tell if you compare it my last start, but I shortened the time between my leg kick and my release,” Darvish explained to reporters. “Compared to other pitchers, I think I usually take much longer thinking and waiting between my leg kick and my release. I think it’s one of my good points. But when I’m not pitching well, I think too much and I’m not able to repeat my delivery. The goal of speeding up my delivery was to give myself less time to think and I think that worked.”
By his next start, he felt more comfortable pitching at a quicker pace and limited the San Francisco Giants to three hits over seven scoreless innings.
In addition to simplifying his delivery, he simplified how he attacked hitters. “He’s a guy that can go to all quadrants,” manager Dave Roberts said. “He can pitch off the fastball, the cutter, curveball, the changeup, so I think that he’s simplified a little bit of his pitch mix.”
Darvish did that by relying increasingly on his cutter, especially against lefties. He commands the pitch better than his fastball, which allowed him to get ahead in counts more often. His modified delivery also affected how the pitch moved, which made him more comfortable throwing it.
“It started bending sideways and dropping more,” he said.
The changes in approach were recommended to him by the team’s front office and coaches. Roberts was amazed by his receptiveness. “A lot of it was him being open-minded to what helps his stuff play the best,” Roberts said.
Darvish was charged with only one earned run in 191/3 innings over his last three regular-season starts, which included the game against the Giants. He struck out 21 and walked only one.
“Yu’s incredible,” Corey Seager said. “Elite stuff plays in the playoffs and he has it. That’s kind of what we’re looking for and that’s what we got out of him.”
If they can only continue to get that out of him when it counts.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez