CHICAGO -- The main explanation given for Yu Darvish's turnaround this season has been a newfound comfort level. After a turbulent debut campaign with the Cubs last year, the pitcher is finally comfortable in the clubhouse, with his teammates, coaches and manager. He is comfortable in the city of Chicago and its heightened media environment.
More important than all of that, Darvish is comfortable again on the mound. He put that on display in dominant fashion again on Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, setting a single-game franchise record with eight consecutive strikeouts. It was not enough to fend off a 4-2 loss at the hands of the Reds, but it was another example of how important Darvish has been to the Cubs' postseason chase.
Should Chicago punch its ticket to the playoffs, Darvish could wind up being the man on the mound for a Wild Card Game or in the opener of a National League Division Series. That will be a fascinating conversation, but first the Cubs have to find a way into the October dance.
“I think I'm in a pretty good place,” Darvish said. “But still, we lost today. We only need wins at this point. So, I'm so frustrated.”
The defeat cost the Cubs a chance to gain ground on the National League Central-leading Cardinals, who have a two-game lead on the North Siders. It also opened the door for the Brewers to pull even with Chicago for the NL's second Wild Card spot and in the division. With a win over St. Louis, the Nationals moved 1 1/2 games up on the Cubs for the top NL Wild Card.
Kyle Schwarber drove in a pair of runs with a triple and double against Sonny Gray, but the Reds right-hander otherwise quieted a Cubs’ offense that churned out 55 runs in the previous four games. That sent Darvish (6-7) to a loss after he was charged with four runs -- two on a homer by Aristides Aquino in the first -- over seven innings.
“Yu's on quite a run right now,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I don't even know if some of that stuff's been done before. But, unfortunately, their guy is really good, too. In spite of us really swinging the bats well lately, Sonny did a nice job also.”
When Reds outfielder Brian O'Grady swung and missed at a curveball from Darvish in the fourth inning, it marked the eighth straight strikeout for the Chicago starter. That set a franchise record for a string of punchouts, surpassing a mark that had been reached four times previously.
For perspective, during Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout performance against Houston on May 6, 1998, the hard-throwing righty's longest strikeout streak was seven.
Darvish piled up 11 of his 13 strikeouts over his first four innings against the Reds, giving the right-hander 24 strikeouts over a span of nine frames, dating back to his start on Thursday in San Diego. In that outing, Darvish racked up 14 punchouts over six innings. He joined Wood (May 6-11, 1998) and Mark Prior (Sept. 16-21, 2003) as the only pitchers in Cubs history with at least 13 strikeouts in consecutive starts.
“Yeah, we don't really do a whole lot out there,” Cubs second baseman Ben Zobrist said. “He's striking out so many guys. It's pretty impressive, the way he's pitched this year. We just hope he can keep it going. We want to give him more run support next time.”
Hall of Famer Tom Seaver holds the Major League record with 10 consecutive strikeouts on April 22, 1970, for the Mets. According to Elias, Darvish is the seventh pitcher since 2013 to record eight straight strikeouts. It had happened twice already this year: Lucas Giolito on Thursday for the White Sox and Jacob deGrom on Aug. 23 for the Mets.
“I didn't know that,” Darvish said. “I knew I was striking out a lot of guys, but I didn't know eight straight.”
José Peraza led off the fifth inning by lining a pitch up the third-base line, where Kris Bryant made a leaping catch to end Darvish's streak. Darvish finally struck out Peraza for the first out in the seventh, which meant he had gotten all nine batters in the Reds' starting lineup at least once.
Since the All-Star break, Darvish has fashioned a 2.70 ERA with 106 strikeouts against just seven walks in 12 starts (73 1/3 innings). He has a 15.1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in that stretch, compared to a 2.3 mark across his 18 first-half outings. Prior to the season’s intermission, Darvish had a 5.01 ERA.
“Right now, he's comfortable,” Maddon said. “And that's why you’re seeing the product on the field. He's healthy. He feels great about where he's at.”
If the Cubs can survive the final 11 games and walk away with a postseason berth, Darvish might be in a position to lead the rotation. Given the backdrop of last year and the rough start to this season for the righty, that reality is remarkable.
“We’re just trying to win the division right now,” Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. “There's still a lot of time on the table. A lot of things can happen in the next 12 days, so when we get to that point, we'll focus on that. For right now, we've got to keep grinding.”