The Texas Rangers scuffled into the All-Star break, losing seven of their final nine games, including five to the worst-in-baseball Minnesota Twins. Their once-10-game lead in the AL West was cut in half. Pitching was the culprit; five times over that stretch, they surrendered 10 or more runs. As swoons go, though, it could have been worse. The Rangers' reduced lead was still comfortable enough, and more importantly, Yu Darvish would be coming back shortly.
Darvish made his fourth start of the season, and his first since early June, on Saturday afternoon against the Cubs in Chicago. He spent the first couple months of the year completing Tommy John surgery rehab and, after three starts, hit the disabled list again with shoulder tightness. The 29-year-old has missed plenty of time since arriving in Texas in 2012—he has pitched 200 innings only once, and he missed all of 2015 with that TJ-necessitating elbow injury—but his brilliance when he is on the mound can inspire outsized optimism. He is one of those pitchers who, at his best, seems to reach past the limitations inherent to the job. When he's right, Darvish helps his team more than seven or so innings every fifth day would seem to allow. When he's right, Darvish is unlike any other pitcher in the game.
In his return against the Cubs, unsurprisingly, he was not quite right. Darvish lasted just four and a third innings, and allowed two runs. For stretches, though, he flashed bits of the obscene talent that makes him worth waiting on when he's hurt and so worth watching when he's healthy.
A couple hours after Darvish's exit Saturday afternoon, Texas lost the game, its ninth loss in its last 11 contests. But a Rangers team with Darvish immediately becomes a thing altogether different than one without him. The club's success so far in 2016 has been founded on the kind of quiet depth that lets them produce a balanced offense on a daily basis and withstand injuries to vital contributors. They are well-built, functional, sturdy. With their periodic ace back in the fold, they also have a bit of magic.
There are a few poor, scattered souls in the world whose first memory of baseball is watching Yu Darvish pitch on a good day. With that as a baseline, most anything else is a heartbreaking letdown. Great pitchers sometimes buck at the constraints of physics, their offerings cutting and breaking in ways that suggest invisible tracks instead of mere air resistance and spin, but Darvish also takes on temporality and the basic laws of matter for good measure. He controls the baseball even after it's left his hand. He makes it not only skitter across the strike zone but actually teleport in increments.
Darvish, six feet five inches of doughy muscle and perpetually bemused expression, works from the stretch. He strides slowly, then lets go of his pitch fast. Here is an incomplete list of what that pitch may be: a bullet-hard fastball right on the strike zone's lowest border; a slider that starts at the corner, climbs back up, and then darts again off the plate; a curveball that makes you seasick.
When Darvish first arrived in Texas, local and national media sleuthed around trying to figure out how many different pitches he threw, exactly, consulting current and former catchers and pitching coaches and managers, but to try to codify them misses the point. What's the use of calling two things "sliders" if one vanishes in a puff of smoke and another lands like a pin popping a balloon? What does "two-seam fastball" mean when that pitch seems to take its ultimate direction not from its own spin but from some broader cosmic dictate to avoid the barrel of the bat, wherever that bat might be?
Before his early exit on Saturday, Darvish found time to strike out nine Cubs, getting everyone in the lineup but the gnattish Tommy La Stella at least once. The trademark snail's-pace curve didn't have much to it that day, plopping well off the plate to Darvish's arm side, but everything else shined at least on occasion. That slower, whittled fastball came earlier in counts, and one or another of the sliders then finished things off, honing on left-handers' back legs and olé-ing past the ends of righties' bats. Exceptions to this pattern included a high-90s heater mostly saved for Kris Bryant and, for the last two Ks of that short afternoon, a dusted-off cutter and hard curve. It was as if Darvish wanted to check his inventory before clocking out.
The moment most indicative of what Darvish adds to the Rangers, though, may also have been the biggest misstep of his short outing. In the first inning, he struck out Anthony Rizzo with a slider inside. In the third, he tried the same tack. On its own, the pitch was superb, starting on the plate and buzzing in towards Rizzo's knee, but this time Rizzo was ready for it, using a flash of a swing to pull a double and plate two runs. It was one of those moments when baseball seems like nothing so much as a series of stacked impossibilities, one bit of excellence holding up even greater excellence. Darvish came up short in the exchange, but not many players are capable of even participating in something like that. He threw a near-perfect pitch, and a near-perfect hitter made him pay for the sliver of imperfection in it. Baseball is harsh that way.
Texas' more reliable ace, Cole Hamels, pitched to form the day after Darvish's return, going eight innings and holding the Cubs to one unearned run in a 4-1 win. Hamels was sure as a sewing machine, hitting every target, burying cutters inside and changeups away. To Rangers fans who had spent the past couple weeks watching their team lose in all manner of ways, Hamels' day was a welcome comfort, virtuosity as stress relief.
It would be understandable if those fans preferred Hamels to Darvish at the end of the weekend. Hamels makes his starts and throws strikes; Darvish makes DL trips and pitches like he never learned what happened to Icarus after the whole Made A Bitchin' Set Of Wings part of the story. For the Rangers to be their best, though, they'll eventually need both of them. And for baseball's spectrum to be fully filled-in, it too needs them both: the steady hand and the thrillingly un-steady one.
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