Hair flowing out from under his cap, Yu Darvish held his right leg up at a right angle and watched Brewers’ Omar Narvaez swing late on a high fastball.
If Darvish stuck an arm out, his body would be in the shape of a K, fitting for yet another strike out.
In the Cubs’ 4-2 win against the Brewers on Thursday, Darvish allowed just one hit and one run in seven innings. In fact, in the Cubs’ past three games no starter has given up more than a run, and all pitched at least six innings.
“It makes my job really easy,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “It’s fun to sit back and not have to worry about too much until the sixth or seventh inning.
The Cubs rotation has been a strength all season. Entering play Thursday, the Cubs starters had the third-best ERA in Major League Baseball (2.65). But this recent string of especially dominant performances came under unusual circumstances: right after a surprise four-day break.
Starting pitchers enjoy a consistent schedule through most of the season. They generally pitch every fifth or sixth day, with a bullpen in between starts.
But the postponement of the St. Louis series, due to more positive tests in the Cardinals organization, threw off that routine for the Cubs starters. The Cubs left St. Louis last Friday without having played a game.
The Cubs coaching staff had a decision to make: skip the pitchers scheduled to start in those un-played games, or shuffle the rotation? They did a little bit of both.
Jon Lester, who was originally scheduled to start last Friday, threw his regular in-between-starts bullpen on Saturday and drew the first start of the Cleveland series.
Then, the rotation picked up at the beginning. The Cubs’ first three games back had Lester, Kyle Hendricks and then Darvish taking the mound. All had dominant outings, despite the extra days rest.
"There have been so many things going on this whole year,” Hendricks said, “I think that nothing's going to faze us now.”
Having Mills and Lester swap places also split up the two most similar pitchers in the Cubs rotation. Hendricks and Mills are both soft-throwing, crafty right-handers. With Mills pitching fifth and Hendricks first, they threw on consecutive days as the rotation turned over.
Now, left-handed Lester will pitch in between the two, giving hitters a different look.
“We talked about it a little bit,” Hendricks said after his start Wednesday. “I think it's a little overblown, the effect of it. I think the last two games that I've pitched behind (Mills) I just haven't made a lot of good pitches, I was kind of off a little bit. Today I just made better pitches. ... And honestly, seeing how he attacks guys helps.”
Even so, Lester set the bar high out of the break and then Hendricks matched his one-run six innings.
“We’re not talking about it, but we’re putting pressure on each other,” Darvish said. “That’s a good pressure for us.”
On Thursday, Darvish said he stuck to mixing in his knuckle curve ball early in counts, as he’d begun to do against Pittsburgh two weeks before. He had a no-hitter going into the seventh inning Thursday but gave up a solo home run to Justin Smoak. Darvish recorded a season-high 11 strikeouts.
“I thought he had really good command of his off-speed stuff tonight,” Ross said after the game. “… Really kept them off balance. You really didn’t see a whole lot of good swings until that homer form Smoak.”
Next, the streak will be in the hands of Tyler Chatwood and Mills. Chatwood had a dud of an outing the last time he pitched, allowing eight runs on 11 hits at Kansas City. But he averaged over nine strikeouts in each of his first two outings. And Alec Mills has a 1.38 ERA, the second best on the team, behind Lester (1.06).
Both have been integral parts of the rotation overperforming, after the Cubs front office was up front about its starting-pitching depth concerns ahead of the season.
After Thursday’s game, the Cubs rotation has improved to a 2.55 ERA, with a 12-3 record.