CHICAGO -- By the time Yu Darvish's outing against the Reds was complete on Wednesday night, his National League Cy Young Award candidacy was intact. For a span of three batters, however, he finally looked human again.
In a rematch with Reds righty Trevor Bauer, a stumble out of the starting blocks from Darvish was all the opening Cincinnati needed to deal the Cubs a 3-0 defeat at Wrigley Field. Two walks and a homer in the first, and Darvish took a loss that snapped a seven-start win streak for Chicago's ace.
"On this planet, I believe he's the best pitcher," Darvish said of Bauer. "So I can't do that."
Darvish issued back-to-back walks to Nick Castellanos and Jesse Winker with one out in the first inning, marking his first consecutive free passes since May 31 of last year. Two batters later, Mike Moustakas sent a low curveball out to right field for a three-run homer to put Chicago in a quick hole.
After just that 30-pitch first inning, Darvish already had his first start since June 26 of last season with at least three earned runs, two walks and one homer allowed. The three walks overall were his most in an outing since June 5 last year, and they ended a career-best run of 26 straight starts with no more than two issued.
"It's kind of unlike him this year, two walks in the first," Cubs manager David Ross said. "He's done a really good job of limiting walks, and it just kind of ended up biting him that inning. Big swing by Moustakas. That was the ballgame."
From there, Darvish cruised, ending his six-inning showing by allowing no hits over a 17-batter stretch. The right-hander struck out nine, allowed only two hits and walked off the mound with his ERA standing at 1.77 on the season. His seven-start streak with no more than one run yielded had come to a close.
Bauer took advantage of the early support, carrying a no-hitter into the fifth and exiting with three hits surrendered in his 7 2/3 frames. The Reds righty struck out 10, walked none and padded his own NL Cy Young bid by lowering his ERA to 1.74 on the campaign.
"Going up against Darvish, I know runs are so critical," Bauer said. "And when Moose comes out and puts us up, 3-0, it's like, 'All right, I can make this stand up.' And that was the goal -- don't let them score three runs and win the game. So, that really helped lock me in."
There is a mutual respect between Darvish and Bauer, who used to share an agent, have studied one another's repertoire and have had plenty of past conversations about pitching and training. Earlier in the day on Wednesday, the Reds pitcher even sent Darvish a friendly note on Twitter.
"Good luck tonight, friend. May the best man win," Bauer wrote. "Secondly, can you send some of your YouTube followers my way? I’m trying to get on your level but I'm a little bit behind. Either way man, see you tonight and best of luck!"
Darvish, who has a massive social-media following between the United States and his fans back home in Japan, wrote back: "I'll talk about you on my channel for sure!"
In their initial battle back on Aug. 29, Darvish came out on top. Anthony Rizzo launched a pair of home runs off Bauer in the opener of a doubleheader in Cincinnati, and Darvish struck out eight over six shutout innings for the win.
The storyline for Bauer vs. Darvish II was flipped.
"Yu was good for us. We just came up short," Rizzo said. "It's kind of like reverse of the last time these two went at it. We hit a couple home runs and played good defense and gave Yu an early lead. That's what happened today.
"When these big-time pitchers get the early lead, they can really settle in. That's what you saw tonight."
If anything, the NL Cy Young picture became even fuzzier by the end of the night.
Per FanGraphs, Darvish sits atop the NL WAR leaderboard with 2.2, with Mets ace Jacob deGrom (2.0) and Bauer (1.9) close behind. In ERA, Bauer and Darvish both now trail the NL-leading deGrom (1.69).
Darvish is second in the NL in innings (56) and first in strikeouts (72), just ahead of Bauer (71) and deGrom (70).
"He's been great for us. Like I said -- one big swing," Ross said of Darvish. "I thought he was as good as we've seen him there after the first inning on."