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Darvish K's 14 as Cubs keep pace in WC race

@oapostrophesd
September 12, 2019

SAN DIEGO -- Yu Darvish gave the up-and-down Cubs exactly what they needed on Thursday afternoon. First and foremost, Darvish gave Chicago the win it needed to remain tied for the second National League Wild Card spot. The right-hander struck out 14 batters to lead the Cubs to a 4-1

SAN DIEGO -- Yu Darvish gave the up-and-down Cubs exactly what they needed on Thursday afternoon.

First and foremost, Darvish gave Chicago the win it needed to remain tied for the second National League Wild Card spot. The right-hander struck out 14 batters to lead the Cubs to a 4-1 victory over the Padres, giving them a split of the four-game series at Petco Park.

“He’s got total command out there right now,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said.

Box score

At 78-68, the Cubs are still tied with the Brewers for that Wild Card spot. Milwaukee beat Miami earlier Thursday for its seventh straight win. The Cardinals lead the Cubs and Brewers by four games in the NL Central.

Darvish gave the Cubs two more things they dearly needed heading into the final 16 games of the season with their sights still set on the postseason: length and dominance.

Darvish threw six innings, something no Chicago pitcher previously managed during an eight-game road trip through Milwaukee and San Diego. Though the bullpen is fortified with September callups, it is missing injured closer Craig Kimbrel and was needed for 28 1/3 innings during the first seven games of the trip. That left Maddon with limited options in some key moments during the 3-5 road trip.

As for the dominance, Darvish allowed only two hits and issued two walks in his second outing since he missed a start because of right forearm tightness. He threw 110 pitches, up 38 from his first start back, when he held Milwaukee scoreless for five innings. In the two starts since the arm issue, Darvish has thrown 11 shutout innings, allowing eight baserunners and striking out 21.

“He’s been absurdly good with strike-throwing, striking people out, changing speeds,” Maddon said. “It doesn’t matter righty or lefty, what the count is.”

The Padres put a mere six balls in play. Darvish’s 14 strikeouts were one shy of his career best and matched the Cubs’ season high established by Jose Quintana on Aug. 13 at Philadelphia. Darvish got swings and misses on five types of pitches: a four-seam fastball (seven), cut fastball (six), knuckle-curve (four), slider (one) and curveball (one).

When San Diego mustered a challenge, Darvish shut it down cold. Greg Garcia hit a leadoff triple in the sixth inning, but Darvish bowed his neck and struck out lefty Nick Martini, righty Wil Myers and lefty Eric Hosmer to preserve the shutout. Darvish used four-seamers, cutters, sliders and knuckle-curves in that sequence.

“He threw the ball really well,” Myers said. “That was one of the better versions I've ever seen of him. He was mixing well, locating well.”

Here’s the truly scary part for the NL Central foes who will see Darvish down the stretch: He wasn’t satisfied with that performance.

“It was good enough,” Darvish said. “I threw the right pitch in the right situation, but my mechanics were not that good.”

That said, Darvish is happy with the feel of his pitches, with one exception: “The splitter is not there,” he said.

Darvish is particularly pleased with the knuckle-curve, a pitch he learned just last month from Kimbrel and quickly put into his repertoire. He threw the pitch 14 times vs. the Padres and got four swinging strikes, three called strikes and a foul ball. The Friars did not put the pitch into play.

“I used to throw the hard curve, but that was before Tommy John [surgery],” Darvish said. “After that, I struggle with that pitch, my best pitch. Kimbrel taught me the knuckle-curve, and I feel that can be my best pitch.”

With Darvish able to throw seven kinds of pitches for strikes, what’s a batter to do?

“I’d probably just bat right-handed,” Cubs lefty slugger Anthony Rizzo said.

Rizzo helped the Cubs grab a lead before Darvish threw a pitch, scoring on Kris Bryant’s sacrifice fly in the first inning. They increased the lead to 3-0 on Ian Happ’s two-run single in the fourth. Darvish’s dominance ensured the kind of victory Chicago needed after it saw a 3 1/2-game Wild Card lead vanish in six days.

Now, the Cubs head back to Wrigley Field, where they are 47-24, for a 10-game homestand against the Pirates, Reds and Cardinals. Only the powerhouse Dodgers have a better home record in the NL.

With the return home and the fact Darvish should get another three starts this season -- perhaps the last one in a tiebreaker game, if needed -- the Cubs say their confidence has not disappeared as their Wild Card lead did.

“Everybody has confidence,” Darvish said. “I know the last 10 days were tough, but we have to compete each day.”

Shaun O'Neill is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in San Diego. Follow him on Twitter @oapostrophesd.