The way Yu Darvish is pitching these days, he may have already rounded third in the Cy Young race and be heading toward MVP territory.
That might sound like big talk considering what guys like Fernando Tatis Jr. in San Diego, Max Fried in Atlanta and Mookie Betts and Clayton Kershaw in Los Angeles are doing.
And it sounds at least a little strange to even be considering such things based on eight starts for the Cubs’ stopper.
But that’s where this short, strange pandemic season has brought us on Labor Day weekend with the hottest pitcher in the National League on a run like we haven’t seen since Jake Arrieta in the second half of his 2015 Cy Young season — and with just four starts left after a dominant Friday night to beat the Cardinals.
In fact, his manager — who already has called him a “stud,” a “stopper” and his start days “Win Day” for the Cubs — had run out of words by the time Darvish retired 21 of 22 batters faced Friday.
“It’s funny,” David Ross said after Darvish gave up only a solo homer to Matt Carpenter in the sixth during the 4-1 victory over the Cards. “That popped in my head after he came out. It was just like, ‘I don’t know what else to say about this guy.’ “
Darvish, who struck out 11 without a walk Friday, has won seven consecutive starts, allowing no more than one run in any of them — the first Cubs pitcher to do that since Ed Reulbach in 1906 and the first in the majors to do it since Kershaw in 2014.
He leads the National League with a 1.44 ERA, leads in pitching WAR, according to at least one outlet’s formula, has his strikeout rate up to 11.3 per nine inning and his WHIP down to 0.88.
Is it possible that a four-time All-Star who just turned 34 is actually pitching better than he ever has in his career?
“Yeah. For sure,” Darvish said. “Yeah.”
How does it compare to other stretches in his career?
“Three times better than before,” he said.
So, yeah, that would be a lot better.
His timing couldn’t be better, if only because the Cubs have never needed this version of him more.
Ross emphasized how big it was that he went seven innings just ahead of a doubleheader Saturday that includes a designated bullpen day.
But more than that, Friday’s tone-setter for a five-game series against the second-place Cardinals came in his first start since the Cubs put two veteran starting pitchers — Tyler Chatwood (forearm) and Jose Quintana (lat) — on the injured list.
If the Cubs, who opened a 4 1/2-game lead over the Cardinals Friday, hold on to win the National League Central, a dominant Darvish almost certainly will be a very big reason why — if not the biggest reason.
It’s not out of the question at this rate.
Valuable? Darvish improved Friday to 4-0 this season after a Cubs loss — including his last three starts as the Cubs’ rotation has struggled (0.69 ERA in those four games).
Not that he wants to engage in a conversation about a possible first career Cy Young, never mind MVP.
“I told you last time, too,” he said of the Cy Young talk. “I don’t want to think about that. If I start thinking that, I will fail. That’s why I want to focus on the next pitch. So the next game’s first pitch.”
The first pitch was huge on this night as Darvish threw first-pitch strikes to 17 of 22 batters.
“He was ahead of everybody, just cruising through the game,” Ross said. “The way he commands the strike zone with his secondary pitches is some of the best I’ve ever seen. And you’ve got to respect the 95 to 97 [mph] that he’s got in his back pocket.
That was evident enough on his 96th pitch of the night, when he blew a 97-mph fastball past slugger Paul Goldschmidt for the second out of the inning.
“That’s not easy to do,” Ross said.
So talk small samples sizes all you want, or insist on asterisks because of the unprecedented conditions created by the COVID-19 protocols and empty stadiums.
But what this right-hander with command of 11 pitches is putting together during this two-month season is starting to feel a lot like what Arrieta did in ‘15, if not like the kind of runs Kershaw, Johan Santana, Randy Johnson and other Cy Young winners have pulled off before that.
The stuff and the success is just as real.
And valuable? The rest of the Cubs’ rotation is 11-10 with a 4.74 ERA this season.
That makes what Darvish is doing about as valuable to his team as anybody’s performance in the league this year.
And four starts from now, if the Cubs hold on, the only question left might be if he’s the most valuable.