MESA, Ariz. — Yu Darvish saw the Willson Contreras’ umpire-debate highlight reel and witnessed his over-the-top emotional play in person as a Dodger opponent.
“At first it was kind of intimidating,” Darvish said of his new catcher. “But as I got to know him — he’s very nice and polite. So I think we’re in a good relationship.”
How much of that was an attempt at humor and how much was actual acknowledgment of emotions is hard to tell with Darvish using a translator.
But if the results on the mound this spring are any indication, Darvish seems at least sincere about the relationship part.
And that could be an especially important part of the Cubs’ success this season.
Manager Joe Maddon reiterated Wednesday that Darvish’s past with former personal catcher Chris Gimenez will not be a factor in how he uses his catchers this season.
Contreras is his starter — five or six times a week, ideally, Maddon said. The only strict rule he plans to apply to either catcher is to make sure Contreras catches Jon Lester each turn.
Contreras figures to catch most or all of Darvish’s starts in a first season with the Cubs in which his mere presence in the rotation has made the Cubs a World Series favorite again.
“The communication that I have with him has been surprising,” Contreras said. “Even though it seems like he doesn’t talk during the game, he likes to communicate with the catcher. I love that. I think that’s a really good, positive point on our side.”
Unlike his briefings with the media, Darvish has no use for a translator with teammates.
The pitcher whose first language is Japanese converses easily with the catcher whose first language is Spanish — as long as they stick to English.
“It’s harder for me to learn Japanese,” Contreras said, smiling. “Our English is good for what we do, and the communication’s been there. It’s all good.”
Kris Bryant, the 2015 National League MVP, has hit .275, .292 and .295 in his three big-league seasons.
Can he hit .300 this year by swinging the bat less?
That’s part of the plan, as Bryant entered Thursday’s late game against the Giants with nine walks this spring (and a .367 average) after walking just twice all last season.
“I feel I’m best when I’m taking my walks, so it’s good to kind of do that early,” said Bryant, who walked a career-high 95 times last season, which led to a career-high .409 on-base percentage. “So far I’ve taken my walks and seen a bunch of curveballs, all sorts of pitches. That’s really helped me prepare for the season.”
Said Maddon: “He’s not giving up the zone. He’s not permitting pitchers to expand him. He knows if he walks into the season with that mindset his batting average will be much higher just by accepting walks. You can’t cover 600-plus plate appearances, unless you really get a little bit lucky, and hit .300.”
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