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(Reuters) - The Texas Rangers made a surprise run to the AL West Division title last season but their 2016 title hopes may rest on the ability of ace starter Yu Darvish to bounce back from elbow surgery.
Darvish, who dazzled the Major League Baseball world right from his arrival from Japan in 2012 and was a Cy Young runner-up in 2013, is being brought along patiently from Tommy John surgery that scuttled his 2015 campaign.
The club is targeting a mid-May return to MLB action and Darvish, who has said he believes he is already capable of retiring major league batters, is taking the process in stride.
"I don't look too far ahead," Darvish told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "You can either pick being positive or being negative. Both are free. I think being positive is better, so that's what I pick every day."
The Rangers are positive they would have a premier one-two at the top of their rotation once they get Darvish back to form to join left-hander Cole Hamels, who they acquired last year from Philadelphia to help their playoff push.
Rangers manager Jeff Banister told reporters he can see Darvish bonding with the team as he gets himself ready and the Japanese pitcher has had his family around him this spring to help ease his transition back to baseball life.
“The closer and closer you get back to play, you start integrating yourself back toward the center,” Banister said. “You feel that, and I see him in everything we do, drawing himself closer and closer to this team.”
Darvish recently threw his longest bullpen session — 35 pitches — and will continue to add pitches before getting to face hitters once he reaches 55 pitches.
Pitching coach Doug Brocail said Darvish has progressed smoothly because his pitching motion required no extra work.
“He probably has the best mechanics of anybody I’ve ever seen other than probably (Hall of Famer) Greg Maddux,” Brocail said. “He’s so consistent and repeats so well. Not having to fix anything in his delivery, it’s going to speed things up."
Darvish said he was about ready to ramp up his preparation.
“I’d like to increase my effort level and pitch with conviction, be a little more into it,” said Darvish, who came within one out of pitching a perfect game in 2013 and within one out of a no-hitter in 2014, said.
“Right now, my focus is to stick with the plan the team gave me. At this point, I’m satisfied with where I’m at with my pitches."
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue