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Cubs’ Yu Darvish meets challenge of matchup with ‘legend’ Arrieta

Whether the enigmatic starter turned a competitive corner as a Cub, he looked for at least 5 innings like the pitcher they thought they had signed.

Philadelphia Phillies v Chicago Cubs
Darvish early in Monday night’s start against the Phillies and Jake Arrieta.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

It took 15 months, and it lasted roughly five innings.

But on a cool, electric night at Wrigley Field, Cubs starter Yu Darvish showed everyone what the Cubs were talking about that day in February when they explained their vision for Darvish in a Cubs uniform for six years.

And then came the sixth inning: two walks, a double-play ball that produced only one out and three runs’ worth of two-out, RBI hits.

Call it baby steps. Call it a quality start.

Call it a blown lead, a no-decision and eventually a 5-4 loss in 10 innings on J.T. Realmuto’s home run off Kyle Ryan — the Cubs’ fourth loss in six games.

But what you can’t call it is a failure to meet the moment in a showdown between the Cubs’ past and present — a pitching matchup against the man Darvish replaced in the rotation when the Cubs chose to let Jake Arrieta walk as a free agent.

Darvish, the thinking man’s pitcher — to a fault — in the Cubs’ rotation, smirked at the first mention of the pending matchup after his previous start five days earlier in Cincinnati.

Nobody was more aware of the imminent hype, inevitable comparisons and implications of the Arrieta-Darvish matchup from the start, and more aware afterward of how big this performance might be as a pivot point for Darvish as a Cub.

“Yeah, for sure,” said Darvish, whose biggest issue in the sixth was a one-out walk to Bryce Harper after getting ahead 0-2. “I told you before, [Arrieta’s] a legend in Chicago. I faced him, and I pitched pretty good. That makes me confident.”

Manager Joe Maddon said before the game he has come to accept that he’s not going to change Darvish’s penchant for thinking, or even overthinking at times.

“He’s a bright young man, and he has his own ways,” Maddon said. “I’m good with all of that.”

Especially if it comes with the cutter, the command and the results he saw mostly in Monday’s start, which Maddon called the right-hander’s best in 18 as a Cub.

Until the sixth, Darvish struck out seven, used only 67 pitches and allowed just a single each in the second and fifth and a two-out walk in the fourth.

He led 1-0 until then, and even after blowing the lead, teammates took him off the hook when Daniel Descalso hit a three-run Little League home run (triple and error that allowed him to score on the play).

“Outstanding,” Maddon said of Darvish’s performance. “He’s had a wonderful career to this point, but now doing it here [in Monday’s setting] I think is really important for him internally,” Maddon added.

The Cubs must yet address a closer-less bullpen that added a sixth name to the list of relievers who have blown a save after Brad Brach surrendered a hard-luck run with two outs in the ninth on a blooper.

But for now, regardless of the way it ended, this night was about how it started for the Cubs. And more importantly whether it marks the start of something for a four-time All-Star who has mostly underperformed since signing a $126 million deal.

Arrieta got such a loud, standing ovation from the crowd when he stepped in to bat in the third that he stepped back out of the box and doffed his helmet to the crowd.

Darvish stepped back, too, giving Arrieta the time and space for his moment with the crowd. Then Darvish spent the next hour winning that crowd back to his side, rendering Arrieta’s larger significance for this Cubs team as a supporting actor in Darvish’s next act.

“He knows what he can do here now,” Maddon said.