It was the storyline from heaven.
Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish, a disappointment to many fans in Chicago, against the extremely popular man he replaced, Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta.
Darvish, who had never gotten to the seventh inning in a Cubs uniform, against Arrieta, a legend on the North Side for helping the Cubs do in 2016 what generations of fans had considered impossible – win a World Series.
Darvish, wearing a black hat in his own ballpark for being injured and inconsistent too often, vs. Arrieta, the white-hatted visitor with the gold star. Lonesome Yu against the man with 37,909 friends at Wrigley Field on Monday night.
The bad guy won over some minds for five innings, when he pitched two-hit ball. Then came the sixth, when he gave up three runs and lost some of the goodwill that he had built. He finished with seven strikeouts and three walks in six innings.
Arrieta gave up one run and eight hits in six innings. Advantage to the man with the big beard.
He didn’t see it as a matchup between the past (him) and the present (Darvish).
“I think that’s just more from maybe a fan and media perspective,’’ Arrieta said after the Phillies’ 5-4, 10-inning victory. “For me, it was obviously a very meaningful start, not only with two first-place teams going at it, trying to separate ourselves from the Braves and the other teams in our division, but facing these guys for the first time as a visiting player.’’
Maybe people will start looking at Darvish differently someday. Maybe, just maybe, a fan base that hated him for not being Jake-like will come to believe that Yu-like is enough. Maybe he’ll be the good guy someday. Just not yet.
“I thought that was probably his best game for us,’’ manager Joe Maddon said.
Arrieta got a standing ovation Monday night after lingering in the batter’s box the first time he came to the plate. It took Darvish awhile to get the crowd on his side, but after a series of wicked breaking balls and nasty fastballs, he had fans yelling, “Yuuuuuu!’’
“I pitched good in Wrigley, so that makes me feel better,’’ he said afterward.
There had been hope that this was the night he would turn around a fan base that has viewed him as a pale substitute for Arrieta, who turned down the Cubs’ six-year, $120 million offer before last season to sign with the Phillies for $75 million over three years.
Darvish had an uphill climb from the moment he signed his six-year, $126 million with the Cubs in 2018. Arrieta won a Cy Young in 2015 with a season for the ages and then became part of Cubs lore by helping them win the World Series the next year. No pressure, Yu.
That was going to be the case if Darvish was anywhere from bad to decent to good for the Cubs. Anything less than great was going to bring on unflattering comparisons to Arrieta, who was a folk hero on the North Side. We knew more about his beard, his devotion to kale juice and his Pilates regime than we needed to know.
Darvish? All we’ve been told is that he’s “soft.’’
So, yeah, kind of hard to claw yourself out from underneath that.
But claw he did for five innings Monday. Then he walked two batters in the sixth, including Bryce Harper after going up 0-2 on him, allowed a run-scoring single and then a triple to Cesar Hernandez that scored two more.
As a Cub, Arrieta would lose command for a hitter or six pitches, “but he was able to get it back,’’ Maddon said before the game. “That’s what he was able to do well … That’s where Yu’s got to do the same thing. When he loses that feel, he’s got to bring it back a little bit better.’’
Darvish was coming off his best game of the season, an 11-strikeout, no-walk effort in Cincinnati. That was significant because he had struggled with walks this season. In six of his nine starts before Monday, he had walked four or more hitters. The velocity and movement had been there on his pitches. The control had been missing.
Arrieta has been lauded for his analytical approach to pitching. Darvish has been criticized for his analytical approach to pitching. What’s the difference?
“Results,’’ Maddon said. “They are very similar in a lot of ways. Both really bright, introspective, really get into the details. As Yu becomes more successful here, I think then it will be viewed upon more favorably.
“My perspective is, when I talk about simplification, I’m just talking about pitch selection in general. Just like Jake, his stuff is overpowering. If he’s getting ahead and the counts are good, it’s hard for a hitter to react to all the stuff that he can do to you.’’
Given Arrieta’s golden history with the team, his devotees have had a hard time noticing that his numbers have been going the wrong way for several years. His velocity started dipping when he was with the Cubs. His earned-run average since his Cy Young year, when he had a 1.77 ERA, has risen steadily: 3.10, 3.53, 3.96 and, so far this season, 4.02. His victory total has fallen from 22 to 18 to 14 to 10. So far this season, he’s 4-4.
But he has stayed relatively healthy, and Darvish hasn’t. That has been portrayed as a character flaw for Darvish, which is ridiculous. You don’t work your way through elbow pain. Rest, not gritted teeth, makes it go away.
Monday’s spotlight was big enough to include Cubs president Theo Epstein, the man behind the contract offers to both pitchers, but he didn’t think it should be shining on him.
“I don’t look at it as a showdown or anything like that or a referendum,’’ he said. “I just think (Arrieta) deserves a warm embrace and a huge tip of the cap. … I’m a big Jake Arrieta fan, just not tonight.’’
He might be a bit more of a Darvish fan after Monday’s game.