MESA, Ariz. — Anyone who wasn’t sure if Yu Darvish was more comfortable — even confident — during his second spring training as a big-shot Cubs pitcher just needed to spend a few minutes around him after his first Cactus League start Tuesday.
“This is like my first outing of my life,” he said. “I haven’t been throwing [in games] the last seven months, so I was so excited.”
Whether that had anything to do with his lack of breaking-ball command and four walks during an eight-batter start, it didn’t keep him from smiling and joking throughout a postgame session with about a dozen U.S. reporters, conducted entirely in English.
That’s a big change from last year, when Darvish used a Japanese interpreter for all his interviews with English-language media — and an even bigger change in tone from the mostly joyless interviews during a tough, awkward debut season with the Cubs.
How big a change? Just ask him why he ditched his interpreter.
“I think the interpreter’s expensive for the organization, right?” Darvish said with a smile. “That’s why. And it’s good for me, too; I have a good experience with [media] and then I can use more English.”
Wait a minute.
The Cubs had more money? What’d they do with it?
“Maybe . . . uh, that’s tough,” Darvish said, smiling again, as he was led away to take a turn with the Japanese media.
If his demeanor is any indication, Darvish is a new man as he heads into the second year of a six-year, $126 million contract. That deal came with such lofty expectations that he admits it might have contributed to early struggles last year before his elbow started barking in May.
“He appears to be much more relaxed, definitely into the flow of things a lot more easily this year,” manager Joe Maddon said.
The big thing, he said, was pitching without any pain and feeling the easy velocity of a fastball that reached 96 mph.
The bigger picture going forward has more to do with the smile that teammates say wasn’t nearly so prevalent a year ago.
“I’m smiling more than I have the last seven years,” said Darvish, referring to a big-league career that began with the Rangers in 2012.
Some of that is about how healthy he feels, he said, five months after having an arthroscopic “clean-out” procedure on the elbow that bothered him much of the season before he was finally shut down in August.
But more than that, “I learned a lot of things from last year,” he said. “Like before, I’d worry about the future, [I’d be] scared for the future. Now I’m living like ‘now.’ So that makes me more confident and more happy.”
That might sound like some of the “present tense” stuff Maddon and the Cubs preach, in part through their mental-skills program.
But Darvish said it has nothing to do with that.
“I just learned from myself from last year,” he said of a 2018 season in which he described pressing during his early-season struggles before criticism grew into boos.
It was by far the worst season of his career.
“My mental [outlook] is very good, better than last year,’’ he said. ‘‘I feel more comfortable. And I’m ready to play with this team.”
When asked if he was more amped up because of the long layoff, he paused only long enough to ask for the definition of “amped up” before agreeing he was especially excited.
“Before [in past spring games],’’ he said, ‘‘it feels only like a practice game, but now, especially today, I feel like it’s the first game of my life. A little different.”
Whatever the Cubs did with all that money they saved on his interpreter, Darvish at least seems determined to make sure nothing’s lost in translation in this fresh start to his Cubs career.
One reason he’s more comfortable, he said, is “because you guys understand what I’m thinking from my mouth, not with an interpreter. That means a lot [to] me.”