WASHINGTON — It might not qualify as anyone’s marquee pitching matchup based on statistical leaders or recent performances.
But it doesn’t get any hotter on a Monday night in May at Wrigley Field, even with the temperatures expected to hover near 50. Yu Darvish is pitching for the Cubs against Jake Arrieta, the man Darvish replaced. Arrieta is making his first appearance in Chicago since signing with the Phillies as a free agent last year.
“From my perspective, it’s another game, but I can’t discount whatever Yu might be feeling,” manager Joe Maddon said.
“He’s a legend in Chicago for sure,” Darvish said after his last start Wednesday in Cincinnati.
Neither has pitched to his billing as a top-of-the-class free agent from the 2017-18 winter, least of all Darvish, who got the bigger deal ($126 million for six years compared to Arrieta’s $75 million for three) after much internal debate about whom should be signed.
Until his 11-strikeout, no-walk start Wednesday, Darvish had a negative WAR in both seasons with the Cubs (per baseball-reference.com).
Arrieta is 14-15 with a 3.98 ERA in 40 starts for the Phillies.
The last time Arrieta pitched at Wrigley, the Cubs still were working on the dynasty. His victory in Game 4 of the 2017 National League Championship Series kept their title-defense hopes alive for one more day.
“I can’t wait,” Arrieta said last year of returning to pitch at Wrigley. “I’m sure there’ll be excitement there. I’ll be emotional, that’s for sure.”
The matchup also is at least symbolic.
By the time last year ended, Darvish replacing Arrieta looked less like a changing of the guard than it did a crossroads for the organization.
Arrieta’s ascension after a 2013 trade from the Orioles into a 2015 Cy Young winner and 2016 World Series starter was the most significant factor in the Cubs’ success, which had baseball buzzing over a possible dynasty.
But when the Cubs let him go without a fight and focused on Darvish, it set off a decline — for at least a year — when Darvish had the worst season of his career and finished on the injured list.
Darvish didn’t have to guess what fans thought of him, especially in relation to Arrieta.
“Especially last year, when I was not doing well, and even when I wasn’t pitching, a few guys gave me, like, Twitter comments,” Darvish said with a quick chuckle. “Yeah, bad ones, for sure. But that’s part of baseball. Maybe if I was doing good, maybe a lot of guys would [tweet] bad things [at Arrieta]. When he does well, a lot of guys [tweet] bad things to me.”
Darvish said he thinks the Arrieta-Darvish debate and social-media emotions have calmed down.
“This is the second year now,” he said. “I hope both guys do well Monday.”
Arrieta is sure to get a loud ovation upon his return. And whether Darvish hears “Yuuuus” or “booos” is probably up to him.
But he still hasn’t come close to replacing Arrieta, in performance or in the hearts of fans. And with the emotions sure to be high in this spotlight start, Darvish, who admits he often thinks too much, could be looking at his biggest test yet with the Cubs.
Maddon said he thinks the hyped matchup could be good for Darvish.
“He wants to do well, and he wants to do well for us,” Maddon said. “To be matched up [with Arrieta], I knew regardless of how much I want to downplay it, he’s going to think about it. Just to go out there and pitch well at home will mean a lot to him. I really believe that.”
Darvish, who has never met Arrieta or faced him as an opposing starter, said he won’t try to prove anything Monday.
“If I try to do that, I will always be bad,” he said. “So I don’t want to show anything about me. I just want to be myself.”