A few hours before Tuesday night’s game, San Diego Padres ace Yu Darvish spotted a familiar Chicago press box wag behind the visiting dugout at Wrigley Field and pulled out his cell phone to turn the tables with his camera.
Once he got his pic and then sat on the ledge near the stands to catch up, the former Cubs ace — and baseball’s still-reigning Twitter troll — went back inside and tweeted that he’d “found the press box wag guy.”
Five months after the Cubs traded Darvish in that salary-dump deal to the Padres, last year’s Cy Young runner-up still has the same sense of humor. Even if he doesn’t have the same NL Central baseball address anymore.
In fact, he said he would only talk Tuesday on the condition he not get asked about the Cy Young Award — as he did by the same guy almost every time he pitched over the final month of the 2020 season.
At which point he was reminded that the question remains relevant because he’s still pitching like a Cy Young candidate.
“Yeah, deGrom is,” he deadpanned. “But I’m doing my stuff. I’ve still been doing my thing. Not special.”
No wonder fans have welcomed him back with open arms — and longing — this week at the field and on Twitter.
“They keep saying, ‘We still love you.’ ‘Come back,’ ” he said. “Better than my first year [in Chicago]. They treated me good [then], but not on Twitter, though.”
After a rough start and an elbow injury in 2018, Darvish tweaked his approach in the middle of 2019, got hot and has been one of the best pitchers in baseball since.
These days, he returns to Chicago as the rotation savior for a Padres team that loaded up on high-caliber starting pitching over the winter to challenge the Dodgers but subsequently dealt with injuries (Dinelson Lamet) and underperformance (Blake Snell) from that group.
“He started Opening Day, so it kind of tells you [what he’s meant],” said Padres pitching coach Larry Rothschild, the former Cubs pitching coach. “Until Snell gets going, what Yu’s done has been really, really important to us.”
Darvish calls the continued presence of personal catcher Victor Caratini — who joined him in the seven-player trade — “huge” for his transition to San Diego.
Perhaps the only thing more huge right now when it comes to the two teams involved in that trade is the hole it left on a Cubs roster that is missing that one, dominant starting pitcher that might make the surging Cubs look like a bona fide NL contender.
Darvish, who said on a media Zoom session after the trade that he was surprised to be traded, said he’s “focusing here now,” on a Padres team that was in first place in the National League West until losing the first two games of the Cubs series.
“I’m not thinking about it,” he said of what the Cubs might look like if he was still in Chicago.
“And Davies started being good. He had a good month last month,” Darvish added of Zach Davies, the lone major-leaguer that came back to the Cubs in the trade. “He’ll be good, too.
“Those guys don’t need me.”
With all due respect to the resident ace in the building this week, he couldn’t be more wrong.
Now that the Cubs are hitting and have a versatile, power bullpen putting up zeroes for weeks at a time, the pitcher this big-market team decided it couldn’t afford because of short-term pandemic losses and debt management issues is exactly the pitcher they need to make noise in October.
“Each time he’s taken the ball he’s given us great depth; he’s given us a great opportunity to win games,” Padres manager Jayce Tingler said. “It’s almost the definition of a true ace.”
Almost? The way he’s pitched with the 2.16 ERA through 11 starts it’s the definition of an early Cy Young candidate — especially compared to their actual Cy Young winner, Snell, who’s averaging barely four innings a start with a 5.55 ERA this year.
Darvish, who said he misses Chicago and plans to keep his Northshore home, won’t get into what he might think about the big-revenue Cubs dumping him to cut payroll.
“I don’t know what they’re thinking,” he said. “But they did it right. They cut the salary by $20 million per year, and they’re still winning and in first place. So I think they’re doing right so far.”
Can they keep it up? Without some starting pitching help? And will it even be available for the price they’re willing to pay during a summer that promises more pitching scarcity than at any time in recent memory?
“If they can get [Max] Scherzer or that kind of guy, they know what they have to do,” he said. “They’re smart.”
If that was a joke, sarcastic or otherwise, it was delivered flawlessly.
Either way, Chicago still seems to be part of Darvish even if he’s not as big a part of Chicago. He stays in touch with former teammates such as Jason Heyward and Anthony Rizzo, said he and Caratini had this series circled on their calendars for a chance to pitch, and even got a little wistful when the Padres’ charter flight began its descent over Chicago for this series.
“When we flew from Houston to here, I looked at the city and felt weird a little bit,” said Darvish, whose start was pushed back last week for a Lamet start, which, in turn pushed what would have been a start Wednesday at Wrigley into the Padres’ next series.
“I was really looking forward to coming back here,” said Darvish, who is all but assured of pitching against the Cubs next week in San Diego.
Until then, Cubs fans can continue to tweet their love and imagine what it might have been like Wednesday — if not what it might have been like if their big-market team had acted like one and kept its ace.
The Padres, are 10-1 in Darvish’s starts this year, losing only a game against the Dodgers in which he was shut out — three games better than his replacement. He’s also averaging more innings per start than any other pitcher on either the Padres’ or Cubs’ roster.
How big might the Cubs’ lead in the NL Central be right now with Darvish?
“You never know with that,” Rothschild said. “But I’m sure glad we have him.”