Five Out of 2,750 by RJ McDaniel July 1, 2021 With 11 strikeouts in six innings in his start against the Dodgers last week, Yu Darvish reached 1,500 major-league strikeouts in fewer innings than anyone else in history. Playing in NPB from 2005 to 2012, he racked up 1,250 strikeouts. No. 1678 Last year he was close to becoming Rookie of the Year, even though one might well consider him a veteran: a pro since he was 18 back in 2005, a decade of experience carried with him. But on this continent, he is not the ubiquitous superstar he is at home. The things he is capable of — the command, when he’s on, of almost every pitch imaginable; the apparent ease with which he can induce whiffs and strikeouts — are still brand new. He began this season with a 14-strikeout game — an out away from completing the game on his own. Now, deep in the summer heat of August, he has racked up four such games. And here he is, at work on another one. In the eighth, with one out (strikeout 14), he has yet to allow a hit. But it only takes one swing, and the tenuous lead he has been protecting all this time is cut in half: one hit on the board now, one run. So he comes back with another strikeout. The first one this inning was a strikeout looking, but this one is a strikeout swinging — his 109th pitch, impossibly placed, moving as though manipulated by invisible hands. “15,” the scorebug flashes — strikeout number 15. And if it’s thrilling, or if it’s tiring, or if he is reaching the end of his rope, there is no sign of it: just an exhale, a circling of the mound, a return — one more batter, just one more. No. 2271 A week left in the season, and it’s now mostly a matter of waiting, staying sharp, looking ahead to the real test — though it took a little longer than one might have expected, given the way this team started the season. Only two days ago, on September 23, they clinched the division, their fifth title in a row. This month has been a struggle, and among those struggling was Darvish, the splash deadline trade, the boost that they hope will finally take them to the World Series. It started off, in August, exactly the way it should have: seven innings, 10 strikeouts, no runs allowed. But there have been fewer of those than there have been middling starts, effortful starts, failing to reach the sixth or even the fifth inning. The worst of these was at the beginning of September, facing the Padres in San Diego: a run in the first and then four in the third, three walks and too many pitches, a 7-2 loss to a team well below .500. Three weeks later, at home, the opposite. Seven innings, nine strikeouts, just a single walk. He takes only nine pitches to get through the ninth — the final one a slider that darts under Hunter Renfroe’s extended bat. The crowd barely has time to process. He walks off the mound, into October, where either tragedy or triumph awaits. After 12 years of doing this — 11 since he won the Japan Series, two since he had Tommy John — he’s well enough acquainted with both. No. 1-24* (Japan Series, 2007) Game 5 of the Series, and the Fighters are gasping for breath — but not because of the man on the mound, 20 as of a few months ago, already one of the game’s biggest names, already a part of last year’s championship teams, and already with a 13-strikeout complete game in this series: the first game, narrowly won against the Dragons’ ace by a margin of 3-1. He is only the third pitcher to record as many strikeouts in a postseason. But that was the only game that his team has managed to win. They followed up those three runs with one, and another one, and then another two, none of those enough, and now they are down 3-1 in the series with every hope resting on the fluffy-haired young man on the mound right now. Not to be perfect; that prospect has already fallen, a run scoring against him in the first inning, as the Fighters lineup goes three up, three down, over and over again. But if he can hold it there long enough, if he can keep that one run isolated, then maybe there might be a chance. The Dragons pitching won’t budge. Darvish doesn’t either. He strikes out 11, scattering hits harmlessly, before he exits the game after the seventh, the score still stuck at 1-0. That is where it stays, in the end: a perfect game for the Dragons. Darvish takes the loss. He is the MVP this season, the ace. But he would have had to have been perfect. The Fighters will reach the Series just once more while Darvish is there, once again in an MVP season. They do not win. No. 2554 Here in the empty stadium — the seats dull and hollow, not even the static smiles of the cardboard cutouts that will eventually be here. The sounds ricochet: each ball fouled off, each hit a crash. There have been four hits against him over these two and two-thirds innings. The score is tied, 1-1. But this inning, he has turned it on. A strikeout swinging; a strikeout looking. Now, he throws a 2-2 splitter to Avisaíl García. It’s the same pitch that got him in the first. That first time, it changed directions, ran outside-in, under the path of García’s bat. Now, it sails high above the zone. It doesn’t matter. García swings through it again — the side struck out. Darvish shakes his head, a little amused. That pitch got away from him; he knows it did. But he got the swing. The next inning will be Darvish’s last. It slips away in the fourth, two runs coming in, and the pitchers who come on in relief fare even worse. The game ends 8-3, and the complaints, the worry, swirl: this pitcher, acquired to be an ace, who struggled, who was injured, who missed nearly a full season — his elbow stressed, his triceps strained — and now the pandemic, the uncertainty, everyone on the shelf until July. What can be expected of him? What does today’s small unraveling portend? For the rest of the season, he will not fail to complete six innings. No. 2750 It’s a little outside, this called third strike. The first cutter, the first pitch of this plate appearance, landed in the middle of the zone, untouched and untouchable. The fastball came after, almost in exactly the same spot, fouled off — just barely caught up to; the next two were sliders, one that stayed up and one that dove down out of the zone, reached for and sliced away. The whole time, of course, he has been the one in control, the one with the power. Ahead 0-2, like he has been the entire game. Eight different batters he’s struck out in this lineup today, and two of them he’s struck out twice. The slider, the fastball, the cutter: swung on and missed, again and again and again, 10 times over. Zone 14 on the Statcast strike zone — down and in to the lefties, down and away to the right-handers. It’s there, right there in the strike zone, and then it’s not. This is not a strike, probably. This cutter stays up, off the first-base side of the plate. But the umpire calls it strike three, and so it is a strikeout: the 11th of the game, the 1500th of his career here in these leagues, the career that has spanned, so far, 197 pitching appearances. History. Steven Souza Jr. protests — he doesn’t need the extra strikes, not with the way he’s pitching, not after the swings he’s taken just to stay alive here. The crowd shrieks, the fist-bumping, chest-pounding energy of rivalry fulfilled shaking the stadium. On the mound, Darvish takes a lap, wipes the sweat off his face. Back to work.