MESA, Ariz. -- For the past several weeks, Cubs manager David Ross has remained tight-lipped about his choice for the Opening Day starter. It is only one game, but the assignment is viewed as an honor and also a chance for the pitcher to set a tone for the season.
Veteran Jon Lester -- Ross' friend, former teammate and now one of his trusted veteran leaders during the manager's first year at the helm -- has taken the ball on Opening Day in four of the past five seasons. Even with all that in mind, Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks would each be worthy of the job based on recent performance.
And that is precisely how Ross is viewing his decision.
"Kyle's been so great for so long. Yu, I think, finished his year the strongest," Ross said Wednesday afternoon. "And Jon's probably got the track record and the experience. But I see it as it comes down to Yu and Kyle. Those are the two guys, the front-runners for me."
Prior to Wednesday's 3-2 victory against the split-squad Padres, Ross was only willing to narrow his pick to Darvish and Hendricks. The announcement on his choice to start against the Brewers on March 26 is on hold until later this week. One reason for Ross delaying the declaration for at least one more day was the fact that Darvish pitched against San Diego.
Darvish worked three-plus innings against the Padres, piling up 70 pitches (45 strikes) in an up-and-down outing. The right-hander sat around 95-96 mph with his fastball, topping out at 97 mph per Sloan Park's radar gun. He struck out four, walked three and allowed four hits (three being infield singles). The one run on Darvish's pitching line scored after his exit.
Following his outing on Wednesday night, Darvish had already examined video of the start in search of what went wrong with his mechanics.
"I found one thing, so I can figure it out for next game," Darvish said.
As things are currently aligned, Darvish would be on pace for Opening Day if he remained on a routine five-day schedule. While things could be adjusted, Hendricks' throwing schedule appears to have him lined up for the season's second game on March 28 in Milwaukee. That means Lester would slot in as the No. 3 starter.
After three Lester lid-lifters in a row, Ross was asked why this is the time to hand the ball to someone else on Opening Day.
"I just think you slot them in one-two-three, for me. It's just, who's a better pitcher?" Ross said. "Jon's at a point in a career where, for me, Yu and Kyle have thrown better. Not to say that I ever don't have any confidence in Jon. Obviously, I've got a ton of confidence in Jon.
"It's just, you put your best foot forward to start the season, and I think Yu Darvish or Kyle Hendricks are a tick above Jon right now."
The 36-year-old Lester is coming off a '19 campaign that included 13 victories, a 4.46 ERA and 165 strikeouts against 52 walks in 171 2/3 innings (31 starts). The Cubs signed the veteran to what could be considered the best free-agent contract (six years, $155 million) in franchise history, considering the timing of his arrival in '15 and the World Series triumph that followed a year later.
Hendricks, 30, reached a long-term extension with the Cubs last spring that will keep him in the fold through at least '23. The right-hander has been a steady presence in the rotation over the past six seasons, winning an ERA title in '16, when he also started Game 7 of the World Series. Last year, Hendricks posted a 3.46 ERA over 177 innings (30 starts).
Of the three choices, Darvish easily has the most dynamic arm and arsenal.
A year ago, Darvish was working his way back from a disastrous, injury-riddled '18 after signing a six-year, $126 million contract with the Cubs. He still labored with command early in '19, but then took off in the second half. Down the stretch, Darvish amassed 118 strikeouts against just seven walks with a 2.76 ERA in 13 outings after the All-Star break.
In considering Darvish, Ross is leaning on two factors:
"Yu's stuff so far this spring, and the way he finished the year," said the manager.
Asked about Ross' pending decision, Darvish was succinct in his response.
"I can't say anything about it," said the pitcher. "But I'm so surprised it's not Jon Lester in the opening game."