Darvish, offense struggle vs. Pirates

April 11th, 2019

CHICAGO -- Many of the Cubs' fielders took the field with facemasks to guard against the frigid temperature and stiff wind off Lake Michigan on Wednesday night. took the mound at Wrigley Field in short sleeves, met the challenge head on and turned in an outing that had its flaws, but was nonetheless an important step forward.

"It was very, very cold out there," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after a 5-2 loss to the Pirates. "He handled it extremely well. From the very first pitch, he had great poise. I thought his confidence was outstanding. First of all, I really was impressed under the circumstances. Second of all, by the fact that he may have found some things tonight regarding his delivery and the way the ball is coming out of his hand.

"Everything about him was upbeat, I thought."

A lack of offensive support magnified the mistakes made by Darvish in his 5 1/3 innings for the Cubs (3-8), but there were strides taken throughout his performance. Given how critical Darvish is to Chicago's rotation, and considering how rough his first two starts were this season, Wednesday's outing was an encouraging one for the club. He struck out four, walked none and was charged with four earned runs.

"A lot of takeaways from today's game," Darvish said.

First inning

Darvish came out firing in the first inning, throwing a dozen four-seamers among 17 pitches in the frame and topping out at 96 mph. Four of those fastballs generated swings and misses. For some perspective, Darvish had created just five whiffs within 68 four-seamers in his previous two starts this season. Francisco Cervelli launched a two-out solo homer to left on an 0-1 heater, but that did not deter the Cubs' starter from staying aggressive in the zone.

"If he keeps attacking the zone, he's going to pitch well this year," Cubs catcher Willson Contreras said. "To me, he did a really good job of staying in the zone, attacking the hitters."

Darvish finished with 68.8 percent strikes in the game, following a 58.2 percent showing in his first two starts combined. He threw 70.3 percent of his four-seamers for strikes after posting a 50 percent rate with that pitch in the earlier outings.

Second inning

After giving up the solo shot in the first, Darvish maintained a strong rhythm and did not nibble around the edges in the second. Following the fastball-heavy first, the righty began showing off the entirety of his arsenal. Darvish featured four cutters, three curveballs, three four-seamers, a pair of sliders and one changeup. The result was a three-up, three-down inning that ended with a called strikeout of Jason Martin. In the spring, Darvish joked that he wanted to change the boos to "Yu's" this year. As he walked off the field, the Wrigley crowd obliged with a loud chorus of "Yuuuuuu!"

"I heard boo," Darvish said with a smirk. "That was Yu?"

Third inning

Trouble arose in the third in the form of a slider that slipped out of Darvish's hand (leading to a hit-by-pitch of pitcher Jordan Lyles) and a first-pitch fastball that Starling Marte ambushed for a two-out two-run homer down the left-field line. Darvish's fastball velocity dipped to 91.3 mph on average in the cold climate, but he still registered five swinging strikes and three strikeouts in the inning. He finished with 13 whiffs overall after having 14 total in 146 pitches in the previous two outings.

"The velo was a little down from usual," Darvish said. "But, I threw a lot of strikes with the fastball today. That's why I feel good."

Fourth inning

Once again, Darvish did not let the Pirates' breakthrough get in the way of his plan of attack. In the fourth, he set down Josh Bell, Melky Cabrera and Colin Moran on seven pitches. Overall, he averaged 14.4 pitches per inning in the game. That was a big step forward for Darvish, who averaged 21.9 pitches per frame in his first two starts this season. That included 35 pitches in his first inning of the year on March 30 at Texas.

"That was strike-throwing tonight," Maddon said. "He had a fastball -- he knew where it was going. He threw some really good cutters. Maybe a couple splits, but mostly fastball, cutter. He had really good stuff, I thought."

Fifth inning

Darvish got through the fifth on 12 pitches and induced three ground balls, including a double play. One was a weakly hit chopper by Erik Gonzalez on a slider that resulted in an infield single. On the night, Darvish had an average exit velocity of 65 mph against his slider. Entering the evening, opposing batters had an 89.1 mph average exit velocity vs. his slider. More importantly, this was another walk-free inning for Darvish, who issued 11 free passes in 6 2/3 innings coming into the game.

"How many walks? None?" Contreras said. "See? To me, that's a great game. We just have to keep working."

Sixth inning

The Pirates put two runners aboard on soft-contact infield singles -- one on a checked swing by Cervelli -- against Darvish in the sixth. With one out and runners on the corners, Maddon elected to pull Darvish at 77 pitches in favor of lefty Kyle Ryan with the idea of getting a double-play grounder. Ryan allowed an RBI single and made a throwing error on a pick-off attempt, tacking two runs on Darvish's line.

"I feel I still could go, for sure," Darvish said. "But I respect Joe's decision all the time, so I understand that."