Yu Darvish rebounds in strong start to beat Braves

SAN DIEGO — Yu Darvish did not allow a hit in his first start in Arizona on Opening Day. He allowed nine runs in his second start last Tuesday in San Francisco.

Somewhere in between those two extremes lies the real Yu Darvish. And before Darvish was set to face the Braves on Sunday Night Baseball, Padres manager Bob Melvin posited, “I tend to think he’s a lot more like the first.”

Sure enough, a few hours later, Darvish was carving up the defending champs in a tense 2-1 Padres victory that earned them a split of their four-game set against Atlanta. Darvish was excellent over 6 2/3 innings, allowing just one run on four hits. He struck out eight and did not allow a walk.

“You never forget the last outing,” Darvish said. “That was still on my mind. But I actually had a pretty good bullpen leading up to today’s start. I was thinking if I can just take that to the mound, I should be fine.”

This was the version of Darvish that the Padres decided deserved to sit atop their loaded rotation. And, frankly, this was the version of Darvish the Padres needed. Because, lately, they haven’t been scoring much.

For the third consecutive game, the San Diego offense mustered just two runs — both coming in the second inning. They scored the first when Austin Nola was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded and the second when Jake Cronenworth legged out what could’ve been an inning-ending double play.

The Padres had runners on base all night, working eight walks. But they finished 0-for-9 with men in scoring position, and they stranded an unsightly 10 runners.

“We’ve just got to keep putting together good at-bats, getting guys on base,” Nola said. “I know the hitting’s going to come.”

While they’re waiting for their bats to come to life, the Padres’ pitching and defense has carried the day. Even with Darvish’s short start in San Francisco and a three-inning spot start from reliever Nabil Crismatt, the Padres starting pitchers have combined for 58 1/3 innings, the most in the Majors.

In the meantime, they’re playing extraordinarily clean defense behind those pitchers. The Padres are one of two teams in baseball this season who haven’t yet committed an error. The Royals, the only other error-less team, have played three fewer games.

“It’s been big, especially in games like that,” Melvin said. “In close games, a lot of it has to do with defense. And we were really good again tonight — and in the right places, too. Coaches have guys playing in the right spots.”

So, it’s been all about pitching and defending for the Padres. It’s worth noting that those aren’t necessarily two separate facets of the game. In Darvish’s eyes, they’re interwoven. When a team plays clean defense, its pitchers aren’t forced to throw extra pitches. When a team plays clean defense, there’s significantly less stress placed on its pitching staff.

“You can feel that they’re very focused, that the concentration is there,” Darvish said. “I feed off of that, off that good energy.”

Darvish allowed a solo homer to Marcell Ozuna in the seventh, and he exited with two outs and a man on second base. Steven Wilson needed one pitch to record the final out, and Luis García pitched a clean eighth before Taylor Rogers nailed down the ninth for the save. He’s the first Padres pitcher to record a save in each of his first four appearances with the club.

But the night belonged to Darvish, who quickly made it clear that his outing in San Francisco was behind him. He struck out four of the first five hitters he faced, and with that fourth strikeout, he became the fastest pitcher, innings-wise, to reach 1,600 K’s.

Afterward, Melvin was reminded that a number of those strikeouts came against his A’s over the past decade when Darvish was pitching for Texas.

“He’s always been good — I’m glad I’m on the same team as him now,” Melvin cracked. “You know it’s always going to be a battle. The other night really was an anomaly. That doesn’t happen very often in his career. You give him a couple runs, a lot of times that’s all it’s going to take.”

On Sunday night, the Padres gave Darvish a couple runs. Indeed, that was all it took.

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