Deeply concerned about the coronavirus, can Cubs’ Yu Darvish embrace the ace within him?

Can a player who worried before baseball shut down that a pandemic was coming, who took himself out of a spring start because he felt ill and went to a local hospital for tests and treatment, lead a pitching staff at a time like this?

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The Cubs’ Yu Darvish has a lot on his mind — and a lot on his plate — as the 2020 season nears.

Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

Things never are easy for Yu Darvish, are they?

I’m not talking about money. When a man signs a six-year, $126 million contract as Darvish did with the Cubs heading into the 2018 season, he never has to dig under the couch cushions again.

I’m not talking about family. Darvish has five children, including three little ones with wife Seiko Yamamoto, and the extra time he got to spend with them while baseball was shut down due to the coronavirus was precious.

I’m not talking about communicating with fans and media. He does a terrific job on both counts.

I’m talking about baseball things. About winning games, living up to that contract, making full use of his extraordinary physical gifts and walking, talking, looking and smelling like an ace.

How best to characterize Darvish’s time as a Cub? A disappointment? A disaster? Is he a beyond-the-point-of-no-return bust?

On one hand, Darvish, 33, isn’t even halfway into his contract. He encountered elbow and triceps trouble early on as a Cub, which could’ve happened to anybody. Now, the coronavirus has stolen his chance to build off an encouraging 2019 second half with the sort of complete, elite season the Cubs envisioned when they chose to move forward with him rather than Jake Arrieta. It’s too soon to give up on him.

On the other, Darvish has seven victories as a Cub. If all goes reasonably well for him in a 60-game season, how many will he have when he does hit the halfway point of his contract? A dozen? Imagine if Theo Epstein, Tom Ricketts or the average fan on a barstool would’ve heard that number before the start of the 2018 season. Anyone would’ve been horrified.

And now, a player who said back in Mesa, Ariz., in early March that he was seriously worried about the potential spread of the coronavirus, who took himself out of a spring start days later because he felt ill and went to a local hospital for tests and treatment, has to lead a pitching staff at a time like this?

“Definitely, I still have concerns,” he said Sunday, through a translator, in a video conference with reporters.

It was no easy decision for Darvish to decide to show up to Wrigley Field for intake screening on July 1 and workouts that began two days after that. Even when he arrived, he wasn’t certain he would stay. First, he had to see for himself that teammates were serious about following health and safety protocols and that the organization was prepared to do everything in its power to keep him safe.

“I came here to make sure everybody was doing the right thing,” he said. “I had it in mind that if they were not, I was ready to go home.”

And even now, Darvish isn’t promising he won’t opt out of the season. At this point, he’s in it to win it. But it’s a fluid situation.

Darvish isn’t known as a pitcher who deals particularly well with pressure. He would admit, for example, that he sometimes spends too much time in his own head. He has worried at times that Cubs fans didn’t like him and that his team didn’t believe in him.

He is no Jon Lester. For one thing, he’s more talented on his worst day than Lester was on his best. But Lester won 43 games over his first three Cubs seasons, won a World Series, was a Cy Young runner-up, shied from zero moments, took the ball on Opening Days and in giant innings and let whatever emotions he felt — fear, anger, desire — fuel him, not hold him back.

Darvish was asked if he embraces the role of staff leader and actually deferred.

“We’ve got Lester and [Kyle] Hendricks still,” he said, “so I’m going to stay behind those guys.”

Perhaps this is why manager David Ross has yet to name Darvish as his July 24 starter in Game 1 of the season against the Brewers. Does Darvish want that pressure? Is Ross hesitant to put it on him? What does it say if the answer to either of those questions is no?

“You know, when I wasn’t pitching well, all the staff, the front office, everybody in this organization helped me out,” Darvish said. “Anything I needed, they helped me out with those things. So I would like to pay it back and be able to pitch well.”

Aside from navigating the season in good health, there’s nothing the 2020 Cubs could use more than for Darvish to embrace the ace within him. That hasn’t been his way, though.

Is it in his nature? What if it isn’t the most important thing in the world to him to be that ace?

Darvish said he believes “everybody’s going to get” the coronavirus, and such a worry sure sounds heavy. It can’t be easy. Then again, his time as a Cub never has been.

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