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Wait till next year? Cubs’ Yu Darvish leaves rehab start after only one inning

Yu Darvish pitches June 25 for the South Bend Cubs during a Class A rehab start. | Michael Caterina/South Bend Tribune via AP

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Wait till next year?

It’s not a fun question to ask. But it has to be asked. Even if it’s well within reason to suspect we know the total bummer of an answer already.

One inning into his first rehab start of comeback attempt No. 2 this season, Cubs right-hander Yu Darvish — remember him? — walked off the mound at Four Winds Field. He was done for the day, and perhaps for quite a bit longer than that.

Darvish, pitching for Class  A South Bend, was throwing warmup tosses before the second inning Sunday against the Great Lakes Loons. After snapping off a breaking ball, he looked to the dugout, summoned a trainer and, in short order, left the game.

It was the same discomfort, he said — near his right elbow — that he’d felt the last time he was at this ballpark, on June 25 for a rehab start. That outing lasted five innings and appeared at the time to go well, but Darvish instead was shut back down, a back-to-the-drawing-board moment that, along with this one, likely will define the $126 million man’s Year 1 in Chicago.

“The first inning was great, [though] there was a fastball I felt like I needed a little more time to perfect the command of,” he said. “But during the warmup the next inning, I felt something in [the elbow]. The last time, I did feel the same thing, [but] I continued to throw. So this time I just stopped it.”

This was not what the Cubs were hoping for, clearly. Darvish, who turned 32 Wednesday, was supposed to be the final piece of the rotation puzzle as the team heads toward its fourth consecutive postseason. His return to big-league action loomed especially large after swingman Mike Montgomery went on the disabled list this weekend with shoulder inflammation.

“Getting Darvish back has been important all the way through,” manager Joe Maddon said Saturday in Pittsburgh. “This is unexpected, not good — Monty’s hurt. But, in a perfect world right now, Tyler [Chatwood] throws well, Monty’s not out too long and Yu pitches well on Sunday. . . . I want to believe that’s what’s on the verge of happening, and it’s definitely a possibility.”

Yeah, well, maybe not anymore. Darvish, who signed with the Cubs in the offseason for six years, could remain stuck on a 1-3 record and 4.95 ERA until next season. That’s premature, of course, but the Cubs and their fans had better start wrapping their heads around that possibility now.

It’s looking like Jon Lester, Cole Hamels, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana. Come playoff time — if the Cubs get that far, that is — that stands to be the rotation they’ll ride. It could be worse. It certainly could’ve been better.

Darvish hasn’t pitched in a big-league game since May 20. He hasn’t given up hope that he might do so again in September or October.

“I really want to come back this season,’’ Darvish said, ‘‘so I’m going to work hard and do my best to try to come back.”

But is it really even possible at this point? Darvish threw all of 19 pitches, 10 of them strikes. His last two pitches of the first inning were a big-bending 78-mph curveball and a 95-mph fastball for a strikeout. If that’s the last sequence he throws in a game setting in 2018, it’ll serve as a reminder of his talent and his fragility.

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Many Cubs fans will be endlessly frustrated by this. Some made up their minds months ago that Darvish is soft, afraid to fail, unready to bear the burden of expectations on the North Side.

Let’s wait for the next MRI exam before we jump to any more silly conclusions, shall we? Darvish requested one himself for Monday. That should tell you that he realized this might be something serious — something worthy of an all-out shutdown.

“I feel most disappointed [out] of everyone in the world, I think,” he said.

This is a man who had Tommy John surgery in 2015. He knows a thing or two about taking the long road back to the mound.

Is a season without Darvish as bad as it could get for the Cubs? Where will he be in 2019? And beyond?

These are legitimate questions now. They sure aren’t fun to ask.