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With Mike Montgomery down, stakes ramp up for Cubs on Yu Darvish comeback

Montgomery

PITTSBURGH — Yu Darvish’s potential return next month after encouraging progress could soon become an urgent need for the Cubs, instead of just a nice addition for their rotation ahead of the playoffs.

Did somebody say playoffs?

The team with the best record in the National League took another hit to the solar plexus of its once-vaunted rotation when Mike Montgomery was forced to the disabled list Friday because of shoulder inflammation.

Montgomery has been the rotation’s best performer (3.08 ERA) since replacing the injured Darvish in May. Montgomery said he doesn’t expect to be out long, but with about six weeks left in the regular season, the Cubs have no timetable for his return.

For now, the move means Tyler Chatwood — who still leads the majors by a wide margin in walks allowed (90) after two weeks in the bullpen — returns to his starting role, taking Montgomery’s turn Saturday in Pittsburgh.

“Then we’ll play it out after that,” said manager Joe Maddon, who has a scheduled day off Monday to work with, but none after that until Sept. 13.

Darvish, who hasn’t pitched since May  20 because of pain near his right elbow, has been pain-free for almost three weeks. He begins a minor-league injury rehab assignment with a start at Class A South Bend on Sunday.

The last time Darvish started a rehab assignment, in June, he logged an impressive five-inning start. But he reported that the pain had returned, sought another medical opinion, got a cortisone injection and restarted the comeback process.

A setback this time would likely end any chance for him to return this season — which is prompting the Cubs to be especially deliberate about the process this time.

After predicting in June that he would need only one rehab start, Darvish said through an interpreter Friday that he expected to take it more slowly this time.

Maddon said Thursday that Darvish might make as many as three starts for South Bend.

“I’m just hoping that everything will be settled and fine,” said Darvish, who didn’t know what his pitch limit would be Sunday. “It’s the very first rehab [start Sunday], so instead of airing things out, I’d rather check each [box] of what I have to do. I want to come back stronger than ever.”

Without Montgomery as a security blanket, the rotation — which took a 5.19 ERA since the All-Star break into Cole Hamels’ start in Pittsburgh on Friday night — might need Darvish more than anyone believed when the week began.

“Getting Darvish back has been important all the way through,” Maddon said. “This is unexpected, not good — Monty’s hurt. But in a perfect world right now, Tyler throws well, Monty’s not out too long, and Yu pitches well on Sunday, and all of a sudden you go from this dire moment to something that actually, in a perverse way, benefits us. Chatwood gets a start, and all of a sudden he finds himself. Monty gets 100 percent well, and then here comes Yu. I want to believe that’s what’s on the verge of happening. And it’s definitely a possibility.”

For now, the more reasonable sources of optimism for the rotation are the strong starts Wednesday and Thursday by Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester — and the fourth good start in four tries by Hamels since the Cubs acquired him from the Rangers last month.

Montgomery self-diagnosed after feeling what he thought was “normal soreness” after his relief appearance Saturday between starts. It was only after the soreness lingered Thursday that he realized he shouldn’t pitch through it.

“Honestly, I was kind of shocked,” he said. “I thought I’d go out there and feel fine. I’ve battled through injuries before. I let a few [throws Thursday] go, didn’t really feel right, then threw a couple more, and I knew it wasn’t going to be something I could really pitch through, at least not with six weeks to go.

“I don’t think it’s going to be too long a time to where I really feel rusty. This late in the year, [when] we’ve got this many innings under our belt, it’s going to be [that I] get it right, get it feeling good, and pick up right where I left off.”

d then here comes Yu,” Maddon added. “I want to believe that’s what’s on the verge of happening. And it’s definitely a possibility.”

Maybe.

For now, the more reasonable sources for rotation optimism come from strong starts Wednesday and Thursday by Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester – and the fourth good one in four tries by Hamels since being acquired from the Rangers last month.

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And maybe Montgomery’s self-diagnosis after feeling what he thought was “normal soreness” after his relief appearance Saturday between starts. It was only after it lingered Thursday when he tested it again that he realized he shouldn’t pitch through it.

“Honestly, I was kind of shocked,” he said. “I thought I’d go out there and feel fine. I’ve battled through injuries before. I let a few [throws Thursday] go, didn’t really feel right, then threw a couple more, and I knew it wasn’t going to be something I could really pitch through, at least not with six weeks to go.

“I don’t think it’s going to be too long a time to where I really feel rusty,” he added. “This late in the year, we’ve got this many innings under our belt, it’s going to be: get it right, get it feeling good and pick up right where I left off.”