MESA, Ariz. — Yu Darvish is a really, really good pitcher. But he most definitely wasn't during last year's World Series.
Pitching with the Los Angeles Dodgers on baseball's biggest stage, Darvish was rocked by the Houston Astros, who had a tendency to do that to opposing pitchers with their murderer's row of a lineup. Darvish made two starts in the Fall Classic, though his performances were anything but classic. He combined to pitch just 3.1 innings and allowed nine runs on nine hits, including a pair of home runs.
In the "what have you done for me lately" world of pro sports, that left a bad tastes in a lot of people's mouths. Theo Epstein and his front office were not among them, however.
The Cubs made a monster splash at the outset of spring training, signing Darvish to a six-year deal and ignoring those two starts from last October, instead focusing on what he's done in the entirety of his brilliant major league career and hoping he stabilizers their rotation for years to come.
There were, of course, reasons to be concerned about what Darvish did against the Astros. In addition to those ugly numbers, there was discussion that he was tipping his pitches, making it easier for Astros hitters, who needed no help smacking the ball around the yard, to light him up.
But the Cubs opted to pay more attention to his four All-Star appearances, his 1,021 career strikeouts in 832.1 career innings, his two top-10 finishes in Cy Young voting and his 11.0 career K/9 in six seasons since coming over from Japan. Epstein went as far as calling Darvish "the preeminent strikeout pitcher of our generation."
"The World Series was a struggle," Epstein said Tuesday during Darvish's introductory press conference. "First of all, I think there were a lot of reasons for what happened in the World Series, from — as has been discussed — the possibility of tipping pitches to the difficulty with the baseballs. And the Astros were red hot. They won the World Series for a reason. They were swinging the bat great against everybody. But I don’t think we’d be doing our job if we evaluated based on a two-game sample.
"He’s been over here for six years, he’s proven himself as an elite pitcher, a top-of-the-rotation guy who can make adjustments. When things go wrong, like they do for everybody in this game, he makes adjustments and learns from it and comes back stronger. If anything, I think getting close to a championship and getting all the way there has only increased his motivation and his focus on winning a World Series, and that’s what we’re here to do, as well."
Darvish has done the adversity thing before. He had Tommy John surgery that wiped out his 2015 season and part of his 2016 campaign, as well. Last season was his first full year back from the surgery, and though he had a 4.01 ERA through 22 starts with the Texas Rangers, he shone after going to the Dodgers, posting a 3.44 ERA in his nine regular-season starts there before dominating the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Cubs in the first two playoff rounds. He allowed just one run and struck out seven in both his NLDS start against the D-backs and in his NLCS start against the Cubs, going five innings in the former and 6.1 innings in the latter.
The Cubs got an up close and personal look at Darvish last fall, and well, let's just say they're happy they don't have to worry about facing him in the postseason anymore.
"He’s an elite arm within major league pitching," manager Joe Maddon said Tuesday. "When this guy is right, and he normally is right, he’s the strikeout guy that he is, he’s got multiple pitches, he doesn’t walk a whole lot of folks, he’s going to be out there sucking up some innings. He just provides so many positives for us. It’s wonderful to have him on your side.
"When you’re game-planning against him, you watch that first and second inning and all of a sudden … you think, ‘Oh my god, it’s going to be a long day.’ Now he’s on your side."
For Darvish's part, he's not thinking just about went wrong in October. He's focused on improving and growing in all facets, and the Cubs are ready to help him with that. Their pitching infrastructure has turned Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks into aces and won Jon Lester another World Series ring.
"There are a lot of articles that I’ve read pointing out what I’ve done wrong, but I did well in the previous five games. It’s not just about the World Series games," Darvish said. "There were some part during the whole 2017 season that I could fix. So that’s what I’d like to take away."
"We look at the pitcher in totality," Epstein said. "If you look at it, he’s bounced back extremely well from the Tommy John surgery. His stuff is as good as anyone’s, and we think there are things we can do with him to keep him growing and better. Certainly felt bad for him during the World Series but also felt it might be an opportunity. Other teams overreact to that. We know there’s more to Yu Darvish than what happened in the World Series."
The Cubs know that already. They witnessed it firsthand. And now they're banking on Darvish being able to get rid of that bad taste in people's mouths. And quickly.