Comfort zone: Why Cubs will go as far as Yu Darvish takes them


Aug 18, 2020; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Yu Darvish (11) delivers against the St. Louis Cardinals during the third inning at Wrigley Field. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest reason for the Cubs to think they have a chance to win anything in October is their perfect record in coronavirus testing seven weeks into the process of a 16-week process.

The next biggest reason towered 7 feet, 3 inches over the playing field Tuesday night when he stood on the mound — maybe just a little bit taller in the fourth inning when he escaped a bases-loaded jam on the way to a victory over the Cardinals.

And if you don’t think those two reasons are inextricably connected, you haven’t paid attention to what Yu Darvish has said for months or how comfortable he has looked pitching the last few weeks.

“He’s a stud,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “He has grown into how comfortable he is here with executing a game plan, mixing his full repertoire of pitches, and he looks really comfortable on the mound at all times, even with traffic, which you saw tonight.

“For me, he’s one of the best pitchers in the league. His stuff is electric.”

Maybe that explains the extra shock of hair sticking out from under his cap this year.

It almost certainly explains his 4-1 start to the season that includes a 1.80 ERA — 1.04 during his four-game winning streak, which included a six-inning no-hit bid Thursday against the Brewers.

“I don’t know why, but my stuff is better than last year,” said the right-hander with 11 variations of five basic pitches that dance around a 98-mph peak velocity.

That’s a big part of why Darvish is the most important player the Cubs’ hopes for a pennant. He’s the power pitcher on the staff who can beat anybody on any day when he’s comfortable in body and mindset.

Without reliable depth in the rotation and a bullpen full of prove-it pitchers, this team will go as far as Darvish can take them this year.

And that makes what the Cubs have put together off the field, with their in-house COVID-19 safety protocols and so-far successful traveling bubble, as crucial as their game plans toward their success — in particular toward the success of the pitcher who said last month, “I still have concerns,” and called his family’s decision for him to play this season a “tough” one.

If the Cubs didn’t already feel sure by now of their best pitcher’s comfort level playing during this deadly pandemic, Darvish said he has no second thoughts about that decision, on a night he faced a Cardinals team just three days removed from a long shutdown because of a coronavirus outbreak that ravaged their roster.

“I’m really happy about the protocols, and everybody on this team following protocols,” Darvish said, “and I don’t have any issue about any teammates, so I can focus on pitching.”

If his focus continues like it has through the first third of a short season, Darvish might even find his way into a Cy Young battle.

Darvish said that even beyond the comfort he has with the protocols, the comfort he found in going back midseason of last year to the slow pace that made him a star for years in Japan — instead of worrying about a quicker tempo between pitches — has made a huge difference.

He was one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball last year after making that change near the All-Star break — when his ERA was 5.01 to that point.

And that second half was the starting point for spring optimism for this team after budget limits kept them from making significant additions over the winter -- a budget that hasn't exactly grown during a season of heavy financial losses as the team eyes possible trade deadline moves at the end of the month.

“The way he finished the season last year, how good he was for us, that’s the guy we’re counting on,” Ross said during last month’s training camp.

Since last year’s All-Star break, Darvish is 8-5 with a 2.50 ERA in 18 starts — and 152 strikeouts with just 12 walks.

The last two starts alone tell the tale of how much different and more reliable this Darvish is than the one the Cubs signed to that six-year deal in 2018 — no-hit, power stuff against the Brewers one start, followed by dazzling secondary stuff and pitching around traffic to win the next.

In between, the Cubs lost four of five games — and came within a late, pinch-hit homer of losing all five.

“This guy is a premier pitcher,” Ross said.

The guy they thought they could count on this year. They guy they have to. The guy who might be proving they can.

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