- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2014

The pitch floated toward home plate at a deliberate 59 miles per hour.

Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche eyed the ball thrown by Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish and figured it had slipped out of the pitcher’s hand on the way to the backstop. Then the ball began dropping and landed smack in the middle of the strike zone.

LaRoche, frozen, could only trudge helplessly back to the dugout. He was one of Darvish’s 12 strikeout victims on the day in a 2-0 loss that quieted Washington’s bats for the first time this weekend.

“We just caught a really good pitcher on a day when he had really good stuff,” LaRoche said.

And few in baseball are better than Darvish right now. The Japanese import, signed by Texas after the 2012 season to a six-year, $60 million contract, is now 5-2 with a 2.08 ERA. He pitched eight innings Sunday at Nationals Park, allowing just five hits and two walks.

Washington took two of three games in the series, but fell below .500 again at 27-28 and is 3.5 games behind first place Atlanta in the NL East.

“[Darvish] just throws your timing off,” Nats outfielder Denard Span said. “He has that long, dramatic leg kick and he pitches to both sides of the plate. He can throw the cutter, backdoor, frontdoor, two-seamer same way. And he has the devastating breaking ball.”

And so a club that had outscored the Rangers 19-4 through the first two games of the series looked like a different team in the shutout loss. Early in the game, Darvish struck out five consecutive batters and none of them were remotely the same pitch.

He got Wilson Ramos on an 83 mph curve and then Ian Desmond on a fastball at 95. Nate McLouth saw a slower curve at 77 and Danny Espinosa couldn’t handle a wicked slider at 82. Finally, Darvish turned back to the fastball and whipped one at 94 past an overmatched Tanner Roark, Washington’s starting pitcher.

“Those guys were missing the ball by a foot,” Rangers first baseman Donnie Murphy said. “[Darvish] was definitely on his ‘A’ game today.”

That effort spoiled a strong one from Roark, who was pitching against the team that drafted him in the 25th round in 2008.

Roark downplayed that fact. He arrived in Washington in 2010, after all, in a deadline trade for veteran shortstop Cristian Guzman. He does not think much about Texas these days, save for friends he still has in the organization and the coaches who helped him get started in his career.

“Just like facing any other team, really,” Roark said. “Going out there and trying to do the same thing I’ve always done: pitch with confidence and throw strikes.”

He did that against the Rangers. Roark pitched seven innings and allowed just seven hits with two walks and four strikeouts. The difference? Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin hit a poor changeup from Roark into the Nats’ bullpen in right field in the seventh inning. That finally gave Darvish the lead he needed. He didn’t exit the game until he was pinch-hit for in the ninth inning.

“I just got a little bit tired a little earlier than I do since I had to bat,” Darvish said through his translator. “I thought I did a pretty good job.”

Of his 102 pitches in eight innings, Darvish threw 70 of them for strikes. In the American League, only Darvish’s countryman, New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, has a lower ERA (2.07). Tanaka came over from Japan this past offseason on a seven-year, $155 million deal and has quickly become New York’s best pitcher at age 25.

Darvish himself is just 27. He has whittled his ERA from 3.90 in his first season with the Rangers as he adjusted to the North American game to 2.83 last year, when he was the Cy Young runner-up to Detroit’s Max Scherzer. Darvish has already made the AL All-Star team twice and is a strong bet to do so again.

“There’s a reason [Darvish has] put up the numbers he has,” LaRoche said. “A big part of it is having those pitches and also location and being able to run it up there to 96 when he wants to. I know we chased some pitches, but overall he wasn’t leaving anything over the middle of the plate. He was painting the corner. … There’s times when you’ve got to tip your hat.”

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