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MESA, Ariz. — In nearly every possible way, Yu Darvish looks like a completely different person in Cubs camp this spring.

Physically? Check. He's added about 10-15 pounds of muscle and looks "huge" and "jacked" according to teammate Steve Cishek.

Confident? Check. Darvish conducted a full interview in English, only needing the interpreter once or twice for clarification.

Comfortable? Check. He cracked a couple jokes with Chicago media in English and spoke openly about his struggles in 2018 — both physically and mentally.

It's that last part that's key. By all accounts, Darvish is healthy and he threw his first official bullpen Wednesday alongside fellow rotation members Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks. The forearm bone bruise and subsequent elbow injury appear to be firmly in Darvish's rearview mirror.

He also admitted he feels a lot more comfortable in Year 2 with the Cubs and is not feeling the pressure. 

"Yeah for sure," he said. "I feel like this is a family. I feel good right now."

He said he really started feeling better physically and mentally around December, turning over a new leaf and putting his debut season with the Cubs behind him.

"At this time last year, I didn't say anything, but I was thinking about how I have to do something for the Cubs — I should win 20 games or something," Darvish said. "This year, I want to be myself now."

It's understandable Darvish felt pressure, given he spent very little time actually healthy with the team last year and had inked a $126 million deal and was expected to slot in toward the front of the Cubs rotation. Instead, he only pitched 40 innings and posted unsightly numbers (1-3, 4.95 ERA, 1.425 WHIP) when he was healthy.

 

Jon Lester went through the same thing in his first year with the Cubs after inking a $155 million contract before the 2015 season. Lester endured a dead arm period in spring training with the Cubs and struggled a bit out of the gate before eventually righting the ship. But he has admitted many times since then how much easier the second year can be.

"That first year is a little tough, but I think everybody handles it in a different way," Lester said. "Obviously he's unique coming from Japan and Texas and now here, going through what he went through with the Dodgers and that. He had a lot on his plate and then obviously trying to pitch through some things he wasn't comfortable pitching through.

"You wanna make a good impression on everybody and that includes the fans. I'm sure it was tough on him. He just looks more comfortable. I'm just glad that he's healthy because he's really gonna help us."

Darvish's "family" comment was interesting in that it seemed to imply it wasn't a familial environment for the pitcher in the Cubs clubhouse last season. At the same time, when a player is not healthy and is feeling the pressure to fight through it and perform, that can be a very natural — and understandable — alienating force. Then Darvish spent a good amount of time away from the team and the clubhouse during his rehab process over the final few months of the season.

In the future, is there anything Lester or the other Cubs players can do to help ease the burden of pressure when guys — especially newcomers — are feeling it like Darvish did last year?

"No, I don't think there's really anything you can do," Lester said. "It's a personal thing and it's something that you have to eventually move on from. You can try to live up to your contract every start and you can't do that. You have to try to put that behind you as best you can.

"Obviously it was just a little bit harder for him with his arm. I'm just glad that he seems like he's in a better player physically and mentally. That's a boost for us and I'm excited for that."

Joe Maddon commended Darvish's forthcoming nature and the strength it takes to admit he was feeling the pressure last year. 

The Cubs manager knows how many difficult moments Darvish had to fight through a season ago and understands how big of a boost he'd provide this rotation — and this team — if he's healthy and able to perform more like he did in the first five years of his MLB career (56-42, 3.42 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 11.0 K/9).

"I do believe that he'll be different and it's always impressive when somebody exposes themselves," Maddon said. "It's not easy to do, especially on this level. So I give him credit for that and also I believe — I don't know if it's considered a healing process — but it's considered moving forward, I think. So give him credit for being able to say that straight up.

 

"...The fact that he's so open about his feelings, it's unique. I'm in. I'm good with that stuff. I've always believed that if you have an issue like that that he discussed with you, to keep it internally is really only going to make it worse. We all need to spill it out there once in a while to heal. I'm glad that he did that."

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