Yu flirts with no-no as Cubs continue tear

August 14th, 2020

CHICAGO -- stared out toward right field on Thursday night, his hands on his hips. Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward drifted back and slowed to a stop at the warning track, as the baseball in flight crashed underneath a Wrigley Field videoboard.

Maybe it would not be a night for history for Darvish, but it was one defined by dominance.

"You really didn't see a whole lot of good swings," Cubs manager David Ross said, "until that homer."

Darvish dismantled the Brewers' order in a 4-2 victory, carrying a no-hitter into the seventh before surrendering a one-out solo homer to Justin Smoak. Gone was Darvish's chance to rewrite a page in the Cubs' record book, but Chicago’s players have stressed that wins mean more than numbers in this abbreviated season.

For the Cubs, the win was their ninth in the past 10 games, pushing the team's National League-leading ledger to 13-3. That marks the best start to a campaign through 16 games since the 1907 Cubs also rattled off 13 victories.

"It makes my job easy," Ross said of his team's impressive start in his first season at the helm, "because we've got really good players."

For Ross, the no-hitter conversation was actually an easy one for him, too. Darvish was sitting on 92 pitches after six innings, thanks in part to the first two frames, during which he logged 38 offerings, issued a walk and hit a batter. The Brewers were not able to find the hit column, but they made Darvish work.

"We ran his pitches up pretty good," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "You're thinking you're moving him along on the pitch-count spectrum, but then he got into a little bit of a groove, and we didn't create any opportunities."

Ross talked things over with Darvish during a lengthy bottom of the sixth, when the Cubs' lineup sent eight batters to the plate in what amounted to a two-run insurance rally. Darvish knew -- even with history on the line -- he was not going to be on the mound beyond the seventh.

The bullpen was going to handle the rest, Smoak homer or not.

"The no-hitter is not really in play with all the pitches he had, right?" Ross said. "Really, it was just batter to batter, watching him, see how he looked. He came out throwing strike one, sharp right away."

Darvish opened the seventh with a strikeout of Avisaíl García, but then left an 0-1 cutter up just enough for Smoak to send it rocketing out to right. That home run followed an 0-for-19 showing by the Milwaukee lineup, and Darvish followed the blast with a strikeout and a flyout to escape further harm.

"I knew," said Darvish, asked if he was aware of the no-hit bid. "At the same time, I know I'm not going another inning. So I just tried to keep the game close."

Overall, Darvish struck out 11, walked two and trimmed his ERA to 1.88 on the year.

"Obviously, on any given night," Brewers starter Brett Anderson said, "if he’s commanding his 10 or 12 pitches, or whatever he has now, it's going to be a tough night for the offense"

To be clear, Darvish actually has 11 known pitches. He was up to 10 last year with the addition of a knuckle-curve and hard cutter, and then he invented a pitch over the three-month shutdown that is a hybrid between a two-seamer and splitter. Darvish dubbed that pitch "The Supreme," but he has stuck with his main weapons through four outings.

Against the Brewers, Statcast classified 55 of his 104 offerings as cutters, though Darvish said some were likely misread in the moment. The cutters ranged from 79 mph to 94 mph. His splitter checks in at 89-91 mph and has cutter-like movement. Darvish's hard cutter touches the low end of his four-seam velocity (92-94 mph).

The pitches collectively read as cutters accounted for 15 of his 19 whiffs.

"The cutter is Darvish's pitch," Cubs catcher Victor Caratini said via team translator Will Nadal. "We know that that's his strength. We try to use that, combined with his other pitches."

Whatever Darvish was throwing, it was working.

"He had really good command of his offspeed stuff," Ross said. "The breaking ball was working, the slider, the cutter in on those lefties was going in deep. He'd finish with some splitters or some fastballs late. Really kept them off-balance."

That has really been the case dating back to last season, beginning with the moment Darvish lobbied to take the ball to start the second half. In 17 outings since that game on July 12 against Pittsburgh, Darvish has spun a 2.56 ERA with 145 strikeouts to just 11 walks in 105 2/3 innings.

That has given the Cubs an ace-level arm atop a rotation that has helped power one of the greatest starts in the franchise's long, storied history.