Darvish sets tone as Cubs get second half started on the right foot

Darvish sets tone as Cubs get second half started on the right foot

Yu Darvish never even came close to hearing boos rain down on him from the Cubs faithful Friday afternoon.

Instead, 40,740 fans at Wrigley Field chanted "YUUUU!!" at the 32-year-old right-hander in six straight innings as he walked off the field in what was probably his best start in a Cubs uniform.

Darvish spun 6 shutout innings against the red-hot Pirates offense Friday, striking out 8 and taking a perfect game into the fifth inning. However, despite that effort, he is still searching for his first win at "The Friendly Confines" as the Cubs offense couldn't lend him any support.

The Cubs didn't score until the seventh inning when Kris Bryant hit a solo home run to kick off a 3-run inning. After Pedro Strop served up a game-tying 3-run shot to Starling Marte in the top of the eighth, Jason Heyward knocked home Bryant in the bottom of the inning to pull out a 4-3 victory and get an all-important homestand started out on the right foot.

The home run was the lone blemish, as — for one day, at least — the Cubs cleaned up their sloppy play and turned in stellar defense and baserunning, led by Bryant, Heyward and Anthony Rizzo.

"We did a lot of good things today. We played really well, including that first ball that Rizzo had to pick to the last one that he kept his foot on the bag," Joe Maddon said. "Gosh, Yu was outstanding. He deserved a better fate. ... I thought it was a better brand of baseball."

As the Cubs were setting up their second-half rotation heading into the All-Star Break, Darvish petitioned Maddon and the coaching staff to let him start Game 1. Why?

"Last year, I didn't do anything," Darvish said. "I want to pitch a lot of games this year. I know the first game after the All-Star Break is tough for the pitcher and everybody, but I believe I can do it, so I told him I can pitch."

Before the game, Maddon said he felt like the right-hander came into the outing trending in the right direction.

He was right, as Darvish notched his first scoreless outing in a Cubs uniform and only his fifth quality start this season in 19 tries. He's pitched at least 6 innings in eight of his last 10 starts. 

"My goodness, we'll take that. Anywhere, anytime, I'll take that," Maddon said. "He's getting really comfortable in his Chicago Cubs skin right now. He's just a different cat, the way he interacts, the way he gets ready. He's so much more comfortable than he had been at any time last year.

"And then you're seeing the stuff. My god. He had his splitter going today, too. He wanted to bring it back out; he felt good about it. He threw it back out there and it was outstanding to go with the cutter/slider and then he would change speeds off that to give it a bigger break.

"He just pitched extremely well. Had better command of his fastball. You can't say enough. He was outstanding."

The performance dropped Darvish's overall season ERA to 4.72 and WHIP to 1.29 while knocking his home ERA from 6.23 to 5.53 across 10 starts on Chicago's North Side. 

As the Cubs work to right the ship in the second half, they could really use a consistent and confident Darvish, especially while veteran Cole Hamels is still nursing an oblique injury. 

Alec Mills emerging as a quiet contributor in Cubs' late-season bullpen


Alec Mills emerging as a quiet contributor in Cubs' late-season bullpen

Alec Mills is about as under-the-radar as you can be as a Cubs player these days.

He's never been a top prospect, he doesn't throw hard (his fastball has been clocked at just 89.3 mph this season), and his demeanor on and off the mound is far from flashy.

Yet he continues to get outs in a quiet, efficient manner.

Sound like anybody else you know?

Joe Maddon has said several times over the past couple years that Mills reminds him of Kyle Hendricks and 14 games into Mills' Cubs career, it's hard to argue with that.

Over the last week, the 27-year-old right-hander has picked up his first MLB win (Monday) and save (Friday) while emerging as another solid piece out of the Cubs' September bullpen that has been without Craig Kimbrel and Brandon Kintzler of late.

The Cubs eventually won Monday night's game 8-2, but Mills was called on to protect a 3-2 game in the fifth and sixth innings and bridged the gap to Rowan Wick by permitting only a single in the two frames.

"What he did [Monday], he gave the game form again," Maddon said. "Really good pitches and a variety of pitches to both lefties and righties. Give the guy credit, man. Every time he shows up, he does something good for us. And does it in a very quiet, professional manner. He's outstanding."

Like Maddon said, Mills has quietly had a lot of success in the big leagues. In each of the last two seasons, he's made five relief appearances and two starts and has combined for 44.1 innings in a Cubs uniform with a 3.65 ERA, 1.11 WHIP and 10.2 K/9. 

Not bad for a guy who rides the Chicago-to-Iowa shuttle as much as any other arm.

"It's confidence, being here every day," Mills said. "The more you come here, the more normal it is. I think when you're going down and coming up from the minors, it's still kind of a shock to be in here, experience these things and be in this environment. But the more you're here, the more normal it gets. Just trying to settle in and be you."

Who knows how much Mills will pitch over the final week-and-a-half of the regular season or what situations he will be tasked with. But he's clearly earning the trust of Maddon and his teammates by answering the bell whenever his name is called.

As for his similarities to Hendricks, Mills is happy to hear his name mentioned in the same light as the 2016 NL ERA champ.

"I definitely look at him and try to pick things up," Mills said. "Every time he throws a bullpen, I'm in there watching. We've talked before. We are similar in that nature, but we are also quite different the way we grip pitches, throw pitches, stuff like that. As far as mindset, we've talked and stuff. 

"It's the highest of compliments for me. That's a guy who's shown that just by being yourself and pitching the way you know how, you can be very successful."


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Yu Darvish makes history, but Cubs lose crucial game

Yu Darvish makes history, but Cubs lose crucial game

Things didn't get off to a great start for Yu Darvish Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but he managed to right the ship quickly.

After allowing three of the first four batters of the game to score, Darvish struck out 10 of the next 12 Reds that strolled to the plate.

That included a stretch of eight Reds in a row, which set a new Cubs franchise record:

Darvish and Kyle Schwarber (3 hits, 2 RBI) were the only bright spots on the night for the Cubs as they dropped a crucial game 4-2.

The Cardinals also lost, so the Cubs didn't lose any ground in the division, but they did fall to 1.5 games behind the Nationals in the Wild-Card race. Milwaukee won, meaning the Brewers are now tied with the Cubs for the final playoff spot in the National League.

Darvish finished with 13 strikeouts in 7 innings Tuesday night, but gave up all 4 Reds runs.

It makes back-to-back incredible performances from the veteran in the whiff department, as he has 27 strikeouts over his last two starts — second-best in Cubs history:

"I'm in a pretty good place [right now], but still, we lost," he said. "We need wins at this point, so I'm still frustrated."

As the Cubs make their push toward October, Darvish has been right up there with Kyle Hendricks as the most reliable members of the rotation. 

Given the way last year went and his slow start to 2019, the Cubs could not have asked for more from Darvish in the second half of the season while also pitching through some forearm tightness. Since the All-Star Break, the 33-year-old right-hander has a 2.70 ERA, 0.80 WHIP and 106 strikeouts against only 7 walks in 73.1 innings.

His performance has been especially huge since veterans Cole Hamels and Jon Lester have struggled to find consistency over the last couple months.

"We're seeing the real version of [Darvish] as a person, not just as a baseball player," Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said before Tuesday's game. "I think the comfortability level of him with everybody — the media, the coaching staff, the city, every aspect of it has played into it. 

"When he's in a good place and he's mentally feeling good and physically feeling good and he's comfortable, the sky's the limit with him and what he can do. He's got the freedom here to be more of himself in that we don't put a lot of restrictions on him and what he wants to do. As long as we kinda have the same focus and same goals, we're all on the same team. 

"I feel like he's getting to the point now where he's himself. You see that every time out. He's an ultra competitor; he's an uber planner. His routines are outstanding. He's just ready to go out there and dominate every time he gets the ball."