MESA, Ariz. -- Though the Cubs did have a Cactus League game on the schedule against the Mariners in Peoria on Friday night -- a 9-3 win -- the more meaningful matchup was the one they simulated back home earlier in the day at Sloan Park, if only because it was Yu Darvish's latest opportunity to showcase the stuff and the swagger that has defined his spring.
Darvish faced a team of Minor Leaguers and worked four innings, allowing just a hit and a walk with three strikeouts. He didn’t repeat his recent boast of currently having the “best stuff in my life,” but he nevertheless exuded confidence about what took place.
“My fastball was sharp and had command,” he said. “My slider was good, too. It was pretty good today.”
It says something about Darvish’s spring that facing Seattle’s Major League club for this turn in the spring rotation was not deemed necessary. Darvish is coming off a miserable, injury-plagued first season of his colossal Cubs contract, and yet the comfort he feels here is clear. A year ago, when pressed by reporters, Darvish said all the things you’re supposed to say when you sign a megadeal. Pressure? What pressure? Now, he’s comfortable enough in his own skin and his not-as-new uniform that he was pretty much full of it.
“Definitely,” he said, “I was feeling the pressure.”
So here’s a new Yu. Even though he’s still technically in rehab mode after last September’s scope of his pitching elbow, he’s feeling more power in his pitches than he did last spring, when he was still considered healthy. Where he once equated looking around the Cubs’ clubhouse, with a Kris Bryant here or a Jon Lester there, to being at the All-Star Game, now he’s been around long enough to feel like a part of the family.
And in conducting interviews with the American media in English, he’s not only exuding an added dose of his present poise but giving the media a treasure trove of one-liners to work into their copy.
To wit… emphasis on wit:
On his hope of having a bounceback season for the Wrigley Field faithful: “I don’t want [to hear] ‘Boo!’ anymore. I want ‘Yu!’”
On facing his former Rangers teammates in the season-opening series at Globe Life Park: “I want to hit a couple guys. [Joey] Gallo and [Rougned] Odor.”
On lockering next to two-time teammate (both in Chicago and Texas) Cole Hamels: “He’s almost my best friend. Almost.”
Said Cubs manager Joe Maddon: “When you sit one-on-one and he wants to let it go, he’s got a great sense of humor. I picked up on that last year, but last year was so tough for him that he wouldn’t just throw it out there all the time.”
Indeed, this is the Darvish the Cubs and their fans didn’t see in the $25 million debacle that was his 2018. And that subpar season has a way of compelling us to forget the reasons the Cubs committed $126 million over six years to him in the first place. Darvish might have famously imploded in the 2017 World Series while pitching for the Dodgers, but he had still posted a 125 ERA+ (or, 25 percent better than the league average) in 287 regular season innings after his return from Tommy John. And an adjustment to his pitch repertoire mid-2017 inspired optimism about what was ahead.
Perhaps that optimism is making a comeback. There are five years remaining on his contract, and, unless Darvish exercises his post-2019 opt-out, that’s still a lot of time for him to live up to the demands of the deal. The Cubs had a quiet winter, causing consternation from a frustrated fan base, but they’re banking on their “broken” lineup repairing itself and on Darvish, better late than never, rating as the equivalent of a major offseason addition to a team that did, despite all the negative narratives surrounding their 2018, win 95 games last year.
Right now, to watch Yu, to listen to Yu, is to believe this scenario can come true. But Darvish knows better than to make any promises.
“The future? Nobody knows,” he said. “I don’t want to think about the future. I just want to focus on today and tomorrow. Well, tomorrow is the future. So, today.”