Yu the man in Houston

The Giants had yet to even get on the scoreboard this season, and amid the impassioned opening rivalry series with the Dodgers, fans of the orange-and-black were already missing pitches. But with the way Yu Darvish was throwing in Houston Tuesday night, Giants fans were changing the channel for a good cause.

Darvish was electric in Houston, retiring the first 26 batters he faced before Astros utility infielder Marwin Gonzalez, with two outs in the ninth, broke up the perfect-game bid with a single through the middle. Not only did Darvish come within one out of becoming the first Japanese pitcher ever to throw a perfect game in Major League Baseball. He also would have become the first pitcher to hurl a perfecto by throwing a game entirely out of the stretch.

When Darvish first emerged as a rookie in 2012, it was clear he possessed phenomenal ability. Not that lofty expectations weren’t abound. As a 22-year-old, Darvish made an impression on many baseball enthusiasts by closing the 2009 World Baseball Classic with the championship-game win over South Korea.

But the challenge Darvish was still to face in his quest to realize his awesome potential was painfully apparent in that WBC finale. The right-hander worked two relief innings, initially entering to start the ninth inning with a 3-2 lead. However, after two walks and a game-tying hit, he blew the save to send the game to extra innings.

Of course, Darvish’s sheer ability to dominate was on display in that game as well, as he still managed to strike out the side in the ninth. And after Japan rallied to take a 5-3 lead in the top of the 10th, Darvish walked the leadoff hitter in the bottom of the frame before striking out two more, including Keun-Woo Jeong, to end it.

Nuke LaLoosh, anyone?

Actually, the best comparison for Darvish is that of a young Tim Lincecum. Obviously, at 6-foot-5, Darvish is of greater stature. But his approach is totally Timmy.

Darvish can throw everything off a crisp fastball. He possesses a vast array of wicked secondary pitches. He throws his game no matter how maddening it is to opposing batters and his own camp alike. And like Lincecum with his two Cy Young Awards, Darvish also owns a pair of prestigious professional honors – in seven seasons as the ace of the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, he twice earned Pacific League MVP honors.

When Darvish first made the transition to MLB though, that wild streak immediately alarmed Texas fans. In 29 starts last year, Darvish issued at least one walk in every game he pitched. Even though he won each of the first four games he pitched, amid them he issued 17 walks in 33 innings.

Darvish would go on to walk six batters in a game three different times last season. He ultimately totaled 89 walks throughout his rookie season, but also struck out 221, ranking fifth in the American League, all en route to a 16-9 record while finishing third in AL Rookie of the Year voting.

Tuesday night, after the first couple pitches to Astros leadoff man Jose Altuve, Darvish looked like he was going to resume his wild style. He ran the count to 2-0 to Altuve, before getting a high didn’t-have-to-be strike on a lazy slider. But moving forward from that strike call, Darvish locked in with the best control he’s ever demonstrated on the big-league stage.

Through 8 2/3 innings, Darvish got strike-one on 19 batters, and ran up a three-ball count just four times. He struck out a career-high 14. And yes, to the chagrin of even many an Astros fan, he surrendered one hit. Yet for the first time in his career, Darvish issued no walks.

Incidentally, just as the game was ending in Houston, with the Rangers emerging from the dugout to celebrate a 7-0 win, the Giants got on the board for the first time this season. Fittingly, it was utility infielder Joaquin Arias who singled back through the middle to score Buster Posey in Los Angeles.

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