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A year after boos, the search for ‘Yu’ begins at Wrigley for Cubs’ Darvish

Darvish, pitching in the rain last week in Atlanta. He allowed six of the final batters he faced to reach base before exiting after just 71 pitches in the fifth inning.

Yu Darvish sat in front of his locker in a quiet Cubs’ clubhouse four hours before Monday’s home opener, opening another box as he started to unpack and settle, maybe, finally into a place he hopes will feel more like home this season.

As Darvish worked on the box, he was reminded about a conversation he had exactly one month earlier with reporters in Arizona – then he interrupted Monday before the sentence was finished.

“Yu-boo?” he said.

Yes, that conversation.

He laughed.

“I have to focus on pitching,” he said. “But it’s the same thing. I don’t want to hear boos.”

Darvish, the $126 million starter trying to bounce back from a miserable eight-start debut season for the Cubs, makes his first start Wednesday at Wrigley Field since May 2, when he was booed off the mound with one out in the fifth inning of an ugly loss.

“I don’t want ‘boo’ anymore,” he said on that day in spring training last month. “I want ‘Yu.’ That’s all I want. I don’t want ‘boo’ anymore.”

Darvish’s return to pitching prominence this season already was considered a critical part of the Cubs’ calculus for 2019 success as he unpacked Monday.

“He’s an impact guy, and he wasn’t there for us last year,” team president Theo Epstein said even before spring training started. “I’m looking forward to him having a second crack at this.”

Wednesday’s start already figured to be the biggest test yet of the new, healthy, more confident Darvish, who spent all spring joking and dealing.

Then the stakes only got higher with the hamstring injury that is expected to land ace Jon Lester on the injured list before Darvish takes the mound Wednesday.

And after two subpar starts on the road to open the season, the expectations for Wednesday seem anything but certain.

Even Darvish seemed to recognize the potential for uneasiness among the fans on Monday as he anticipated Opening Day introductions.

“I’m a little scared,” he said, with a slight grin, before the anxiousness melted with a warm reception and eventually a 10-0 Cubs victory.

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Now it gets real.

Darvish walked seven in his first start against his former teammates in Texas and failed to get out of the third inning. Last week in Atlanta, he looked good until the rain picked up, and then he struggled with command and hard contact, failing to get out of the fifth.

“Hopefully, he can build on the positives and have a good start on Wednesday night,” Epstein said, “but I don’t think it’s appropriate to sort of issue start-to-start referenda on our starting pitchers as we go.”

That will be unavoidable for Darvish unless he strings together enough productive starts to ease the skepticism earned through 10 healthy starts for the Cubs that have produced only three that lasted even five innings.

“He’s looking to settle in,” Epstein said. “His first start, as with a couple of our guys, wasn’t what he looked for. He made progress the last time out. There’s still certainly room for improvement going forward, and I think he will [show it].”

He’d better, and fast if he wants to turn those “boos” to “Yuuuus.”

And with his struggling team already 3-7 as it loses its ace to the injury list, Darvish has never been more important to the Cubs.

He said the mechanical adjustment he made before last week’s start paid off and that he feels strong physically heading into Wednesday.

“After that I still was working to fix some little things, and I feel really good right now,” Darvish said, adding that he’s excited to restart his relationship with the home crowd.

“I’m so happy to be here again,” he said, “because last year I couldn’t pitch for [most of the season].”

After throwing just 71 pitches in his last start, he joked that he would be ready to throw 200 the next time.

“Yeah, for sure,” he insisted again Monday. “Every start.”

That would be one way to get a few “Yuuuus.”