Closing Time: Yu Darvish toys with the Astros

No-hit bids have become fairly common in the post-juice world we live in, but all bids are not created equal. It's possible for a pitcher to carry a late bid through a combination of luck and good fortune, with defense and timing lugging most of the mail.

And then there was Yu Darvish's start Tuesday night in Houston, where anyone could see early on he had no-hit stuff. Sometimes the electricity simply jumps off the screen.

Darvish commandeered the spotlight on baseball's third day of the season, setting down 26 Astros in a row before Marwin Gonzalez snapped the perfect-game bid with a clean single up the middle. Darvish struck out 14, walked no one, and was in complete control throughout. His nasty slider (which he surely learned from Kerry Wood and Bugs Bunny) resulted in a number of awkward cuts and easy outs. He only needed 111 pitches (78 strikes) in all, though the Rangers judiciously removed him after the Gonzalez hit.

After viewing a performance like that, fantasy owners are left with two clear questions:

Just how good is this Yu Darvish?

Just how bad are these 2013 Houston Astros?

Let's try to get a handle on both answers.

Darvish showed up on a lot of breakthrough lists this spring, as baseball and roto analysts alike expected him to build on his solid MLB debut (16-9, 3.90 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 221 strikeouts). Darvish started to pitch more confidently and aggressively in the final six weeks of the 2012 season, posting a 2.13 ERA and 0.77 WHIP over 50.2 innings. This isn't a case of cherry picking numbers and imagining what they might mean; the change in approach was clear for anyone to see. Three of the six Yahoo! fantasy analysts surveyed picked Darvish to win the 2013 Cy Young Award, excited about a high-upside arm who turns 27 in August.

[Also: Texas Rangers' Yu Darvish falls one out short of a perfect game]

To continue the fun-with-numbers exercise, consider what Darvish has done over his last nine starts, including the playoff turn against Baltimore and Tuesday's brilliant outing: 65 IP, 35 H, 16 R, 14 ER, 10 BB, 80 K. That's a 1.91 ERA and 0.68 WHIP, kids. Wiffle Ball numbers from the backyard.

I suspect Darvish would be a Top 10 pitcher on anyone's going-forward list, lumped with the list of dominant arms just below the trinity of Kershaw, Verlander and Strasburg. The strikeout upside is gigantic, obviously; the age is right; he should be more comfortable in America after a get-acclimated year; and the addition of the new divisional opponent helps as well.

Ah, yes, there's our other homework assignment here. Just how punchless are the Astros? While Houston did beat Texas in the stand-alone opener Sunday night, it also struck out 13 times along the way. Throw in 15 more whiffs from Tuesday and that's 28 punchouts over two games (against a piddly three walks). We'll be aggressively streaming against this crew all year. Jose Altuve is a credible bat and leadoff man, but there's not much after him.

It's a case of getting what you pay for, as the rebuilding Astros will cost about $19 million in 2013. Management knows the score here; the goal is to get cheap on the balance sheet now and hope to be contending in a few years down the road. It doesn't take too long if you get lucky in the draft - consider how quickly the Nationals juggernaut came together.

In the meantime, let's look at the names projected to face against Houston over the balance of the week: Alexi Ogando (Wednesday), Dan Straily (Friday), Bartolo Colon (Saturday) and Brett Anderson (Sunday). Three widely-available Mariners (Joe Saunders, Brandon Maurer and Blake Beavan)are in line to face the Astros in a series that opens Monday. Do what you need to do; this is good work if you can get it.

It's going to be near-impossible for any other Tuesday pitching performance to get a deep look given what Darvish did in Houston, but let's throw some props to the job Hishashi Iwakuma did at Oakland, six terrific innings (2 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 7 K). Other than a Yoenis Cespedes homer, Iwakuma was in cruise control in his 2013 debut. Most of Iwakuma's value last year came in the womb of Safeco Field (2.49/1.18, as opposed to 4.20/1.42 on the road), but he's still an intriguing play in certain spots (Oakland's park certainly qualifies). Use your own judgment at Chicago on the weekend.

Mike Morse supported Iwakuma nicely, clubbing a couple of homers into the Bay Area air. Many pundits like to brush off big spring performances but I've always paid attention to major slugging spikes, per the John Dewan Rule. Morse parlayed a major spring into a breakthrough year in 2011, and I'm bullish on his potential this year as well, on the heels of a monster camp. (If you're skeptical of the Dewan Rule, you have good company: some folks at Baseball Prospectus agree with you.)

Michael Saunders also had a quality day for the Ms, scoring two runs and stealing a couple of bases. His .247/.306/.432 line from 2012 doesn't look like much, but category juice (19 homers, 21 steals) will play in any format. He's 39-for-49 on the bases for his career, and he looks like a fixture at the top of the Seattle order (he hit second in the opener, and first on Tuesday). Sounds like someone who should be owned in more than 15 percent of Yahoo! leagues.

It was a clean night on the save front, with Chris Perez, Jim Johnson and Rafael Betancourt recording pain-free handshakes. Perez and Johnson both worked around a hit in a full inning of work; Betancourt faced just one batter, inheriting the save opportunity from the mess of others. I watched every pitch of Johnson's save and was impressed with his location and stubbornness; even the off-plate balls called against him were thrown more or less where the mitt was set. His strikeout rate is never going to be zesty, but a heavy sinker and a bunch of weak contact sounds good to me. (Tuesday's game ended with a double-play grounder, meekly hit to shortstop.)

It's also encouraging to see Perez come through in his first chance, given he battled a shoulder issue all spring and Vinnie Pestano looms as a talented understudy. Perez was a closer with little cred into last year (and an opening-day meltdown didn't help that at all), but he went on to spike his strikeout rate and have a dynamite campaign. Whatever you paid for him in March, it was probably a bargain.

Speed Round: Brett Lawrie (ribs) will probably miss two more weeks, which buys time for Emilio Bonifacio. When Lawrie comes back, Bonifacio has to deal with Maicer Izturis at second base. … Shaun Marcum (biceps) didn't make his simulated-game start and you can count him out for the weekend. Ah, the poor Mets. … The Hyun-Jin Ryu debut was better than you might think at first glance (10 H, 3 R, 0 BB, 5 K). Shoddy infield defense led to a pair of unearned runs, and the Giants didn't have any extra-base hits off the lefty. Go ahead and steam Ryu against Pittsburgh this weekend. … Lucas Harrell was the tough-luck loser in the Darvish game, working six strong inning (6 H, 1 R, 2 BB, 4 K). He was one of the more underrated pitchers in the NL last season (3.76/1.36, 140 strikeouts) but his upside is capped by the shift to the AL and the support problem the Astros present. … The Cardinals 6-1 victory didn't present a save situation but they probably showed us the bullpen blueprint with Jason Motte out: Edward Mujica in the middle, Trevor Rosenthal in the eighth and Mitchell Boggs for the ninth. That trio combined for 3.1 scoreless innings, allowing one hit and striking out four (two from the highly-regarded Rosenthal, who should be a terrific starter someday).

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