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Yu serious? Darvish driven to atone for last year despite doubters

Chicago Cubs' Yu Darvish greets fans during the baseball team's annual convention Friday, Jan. 18, 2019, in Chicago. | Matt Marton/Associated Press

Yu Darvish is as big a reason as any that the Cubs don’t have the money in the budget to chase their Bryce Harper dreams in free agency this winter.

But can the man who was a first-year bust as a $126 million free agent last year come back strong enough in 2019 to make disgruntled fans forget about Harper’s beautiful swing and glorious mane winding up with another team?

Not if you listen to many fans and studio jockeys across social media and the local airwaves since a series of fifth-inning face-plants followed by months of fits and starts through baffling injury drama last season.

But if you listened to Darvish on Friday?

“I always trust me,” said the right-hander, who spoke with so much more apparent confidence than last year that he literally spoke in another language during a conversation with the Sun-Times as the Cubs Convention opened at the Sheraton Grand.

Darvish has shed his full-time interpreter from last year and said he plans to do interviews with local media in English this season as often as possible.

More significant, the four-time All-Star said his arm feels healthy and strong more than four months after a debridement surgery. Darvish will start throwing from a mound again next Friday. That puts him on a progression to open spring training on a normal, full schedule.

Darvish had a season unlike any he experienced in a professional career that began in Japan before 5½ seasons in Texas and a few months in Los Angeles that culminated with a forgettable World Series performance.

Before a bone bruise was diagnosed late in the season, his toughness was questioned even as he went on the disabled list because of triceps soreness. His public critics included Alex Rodriguez, Rick Sutcliffe and much of the media.

“It was a tough year,” he said.

Teammate Chris Gimenez at one point said Darvish told him he believed the fans in Chicago “hate” him.

“That’s not true,” Darvish said Friday. “The Chicago fans always gave me a positive word. Especially when I got to the stadium, the people always [were] positive. I always appreciated that. I had a big contract, but I wasn’t doing anything for the fans.”

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That’s about to change, he vowed — his firm handshake grip and 15 pounds of added muscle suggesting strength and health, if nothing else, less than a month before camp opens.

Darvish said that he felt healthy physically until the day after his final start May 20.

But he couldn’t explain what went wrong during most of those early season starts when he could look dominant before suddenly unraveling and failing to get out of the fifth inning.

Did the biggest contract of his career get in his head? Going to a new team and city? Specifically the fishbowl media environment with the Cubs?

“I’m not sure,” Darvish said. “I can’t tell which reason, but something was there, because that was not me. That was not Yu Darvish. So something was wrong.

“I think it was mental,” he added, “because I think I was thinking ‘I have to do something, I have to throw this strike’ — I was thinking, ‘I have to.’ ”

He made only eight starts, going 1-3 with a 4.95 ERA and pitching less than five innings in five of the eight.

His expectation this time around?

“Way different than last year,” he said, “because I know [the beat writers], I know teammates well. Now I feel like my place is here. I feel more comfortable, and I have more confidence than last year.

“If I’m healthy the whole year, I can help the team,” he said.

For a budget-strapped team looking desperately for improvement without making significant additions, a bounce-back Darvish could be a key.

“It’s big,” team president Theo Epstein said.

“He’s an impact guy, and he wasn’t there for us last year. I’m looking forward to him having a second crack at this.”

Darvish said he’s driven to do this year what he couldn’t last year for the team and fans.

But a lot of it is personal, too.

“It means a lot,” he said. “I want the challenge, for me.”