CINCINNATI – Bring on Jake Arrieta.
After what he called his best start of the season Wednesday night in Cincinnati, enigmatic Cubs starter Yu Darvish gets the best test yet of his rediscovered command and focus in his next start Monday against the Phillies.
“He’s a legend in Chicago for sure,” Darvish said of former Cubs ace Arrieta – who starts for the Phillies against Darvish and the Cubs on Monday at Wrigley Field.
“I respect that. And I’m really looking forward to facing him.”
Starts like Wednesday’s have been rare for Darvish since he signed his $126 million free- agent deal with the Cubs 15 months ago — fueling the pro-Arrieta crowd that clamored for the Cubs to pursue the 2015 Cy Young winner and 2016 World Series hero instead during that winter.
If Darvish has generally disappointed in 17 starts as a Cub these two seasons, his 11-strikeout, no-walk performance during an eventual 10-inning loss to the Reds on Wednesday delivered a tantalizing opening act for what’s sure to be Chicago’s most anticipated pitching matchup of the first two months of the season.
Darvish didn’t get the victory after the closer-less Cubs’ bullpen blew a late two-run lead in a 6-5 loss that Yasiel Puig – facing a five-man infield – ended with a bases-loaded drive off the wall with one out in the 10th.
But how this loss on May 15 ended was far less important for the Cubs than how the man who started it for them fared – and where he goes from here.
Cubs manager Joe Maddon reiterated as recently as Tuesday that he expects the team to “be rewarded for the patience” with a high-priced, high-maintenance starter whose admitted overthinking has too often muted his exceptional talent.
“There’s going to be that moment, that epiphany Whatever you want to call it, it’s going to happen,” Maddon said. “And then he’s going to take off, and then you’re going to see this incredible run he’s going to get on.”
Was this start the one? Darvish gave up a first-inning run on a pair of hits in the first and another on a pair of hits in the fourth. But he retired 10 of 11 in between and then the final five batters he faced.
Working at a more “comfortable” slower pace rather than push the tempo, he commanded an upper-90s fastball, bedeviled former MVP Joey Votto – including twice striking him out looking – and never seemed especially stressed during the 102-pitch outing.
On the other hand, all those pitches got him just one batter deep into the sixth inning because of all the strikeouts and other deep counts.
Maddon called him “outstanding.” Catcher Taylor Davis, his personal catcher in recent weeks, said Darvish is “close” to that epiphany.
“Everything is just starting to pinwheel like he’s putting everything together,” Davis said.
But Darvish isn’t ready to go that far.
“I hope so,” he said. “But I really need it in a start at Wrigley. I always struggle in the homestands. I really need [one there] like today’s start.”
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“I need a base hit against him,” Darvish joked of the matchup. “Just one base hit.”
More seriously: “I need a quality start for sure. But I really want to see his stuff, the sinker and cutter, because he’s nasty – top five in MLB. I can study from his stuff. I’m looking forward to seeing him.”
Based on their longstanding efforts to build Darvish’s confidence and keep him from overthinking, it would seem a natural to try to avoid the Arrieta head-to-head matchup.
“I’m really not concerned about that,” Maddon said. “When this guy is pitching at his best he can beat anybody. It’s his day. He will pitch.”
Darvish insists he won’t be trying to prove anything to fans – or anyone else.
“If I’m trying to show something, I’m [taking a step] back,” he said. “I want to be myself.”