The Arizona League Rangers squad took the field last night for the first time, featuring a lineup including center fielder Lewis Brinson (age 18), third baseman Joey Gallo (18), right fielder Nomar Mazara (17), shortstop Luis Marte (18), DH Jamie Jarmon (18 today), left fielder Nick Williams (18), and righthander C.J. Edwards (20), a group with a sixth-level crystal ball buzz (especially once first baseman Ronald Guzman  returns from a minor ankle ding and super-especially if and when Texas is awarded outfielder Jairo Beras ) that’s unmatched since Rudy Jaramillo’s 1986 Gulf Coast League group that boasted Juan Gonzalez (16), Sammy Sosa (17), Dean Palmer (17), Rey Sanchez (18), and righthander Kevin Brown (21).
But it was instead 350 miles west where the game got off to a Rookie League type of start.
After a quiet top of the first in San Diego, Yu Darvish took the mound in the bottom of the frame and made quick work of the much-anticipated Will Venable rematch before throwing three straight balls out of the zone to number two hitter Cameron Maybin, ultimately walking him, and going to 2-2 on Mark Kotsay when he then missed the zone and Yorvit Torrealba missed everything on an ill-advised throw to second as Maybin had started to run and was scrambling back to first. Kotsay then walked, bringing the Padres’ most legitimate threat, Chase Headley, to the plate with two on and nobody out. Headley lined into a double play, second to short, and Darvish was out of trouble.
San Diego starter Anthony Bass breezed through the second, too, coaxing an Adrian Beltre flyout and sandwiching Nelson Cruz and Torrealba strikeouts around a David Murphy single fielded by the catcher.
In his half of the second, Darvish struck Yonder Alonso out on a full count and Everth Cabrera singled to right, but with the punchless John Baker, the anemic Alexi Amarista, and the pitcher Bass due up, things didn’t look too dire, especially once Baker grounded into a 6-4 fielder’s choice.
But then an Amarista ground-rule double on a 1-2 count put runners on second and third. And Bass, after looking at two strikes, singled to right, bringing both Baker and Amarista in to score. Darvish’s mound opponent then added to the circus by stealing second – his first stolen base since high school – but was stranded there when Venable squared up a lineout to first.
Darvish needed 41 pitches to get through two frames. Two frames that featured walks and mental/physical errors and ground rule doubles from hitters slugging under .300 for their career and pitchers driving in runs and pitchers stealing bases. Stuff you might expect to see in Surprise.
But then Darvish got right. Over the next six innings, he allowed one more hit than he collected himself. He faced two over the minimum in innings three through eight, yielding two singles and a walk, and coaxed both a caught stealing and a 6-3 double play while fanning seven in that six-inning stretch. After those 41 pitches through two, he needed only 81 over the next six.
He got stronger, the offense woke up against the San Diego bullpen, and Texas suddenly has baseball’s best record again. As reader Alex Rosenfield points out, in the last 10 games the Rangers have scored 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and (twice) 9 runs, which is freakish enough before you consider that even with the lower scores, the club has lost just one of those games.
Darvish has pitched twice in that stretch, following three extra days of rest, and in each of those two starts he’s allowed two runs over eight innings, striking out a total of 19 batters while walking five. Bigger tests than Houston and San Diego await, as Darvish next faces Detroit and Minnesota, teams who have seen him before. He’s 8-1, 2.51 against teams who haven’t faced him, and 1-3, 6.53 when seeing a club the second time. Darvish has faced the Tigers (6.1 innings, one earned run) and Twins (5.2 innings, one earned run).
Maybe the AZL Royals will have an easier time with Edwards (5-5-0-0-0-4 in his pro debut) the next time he faces the Rangers’ complex-mates. Brinson probably won’t lead off every game of his pro career with a triple. Soon enough Gallo will chip in with the third of the three true outcomes, and Guzman will get on the field, but for now both probably had to buy Chipotle for Mazara (two singles, two RBI) and Jarmon (two-run triple, single, hit-by-pitch, two runs).
And maybe Beras will eventually be allowed to join the AZL club, further crowding what had been a relatively thin outfield crop in the system, one that may be about to get a very interesting boost at Frisco as well if the latest rumblings are true.
And maybe the Rangers will start to put together some more consistent offense, the rotation will get healthier, and Darvish will begin treating repeat opponents badly. It’s sort of strange picking on this team’s problems when it’s dropped only one game in the last 10, but the reality is that Texas can play better baseball than it’s playing right now.
In the meantime? It’s a lot more fun when your team finds ways to win than when it’s stuck doing the opposite.