Dayton Daily News
Healthy Darvish eyes his return to dominance in 2019
Pitcher struggled with injuries a season ago.
Eleven years CHICAGO — ago, Yu Darvish was in his own universe.
“Darvish only spoke in Japanese,” recalled Cubs assistant hitting coach Terrmel Sledge, a teammate of Darvish with the Nippon Ham Fighters of the Japan Pacific League for two seasons. “He was 21 and young. We foreigners spotted him and we recognized that year he really wants to be the best.
“He was in his own world, and that’s the first perspective you had on him. He really wanted to be the best.”
With a surgically repaired right arm, Darvish is eyeing a return to dominance that made him one of the marquee free-agent starters last offseason, leading to him signing a six-year, $126 million contract with the Cubs.
At the Cubs Convention last month, Darvish appeared to be more comfortable than he did last season, speaking in English without an interpreter, while discussing optimism about contributing — thanks to a healthy right elbow.
Team President Theo Epstein emphasized two months ago that the Cubs hired Sledge, who played with Darvish in 2008-09, exclusively to aid hitting coach Anthony Iapoce and not because of his association with Darvish.
“I have more confidence than last year,” said Darvish, who agreed to terms with the Cubs only five days before their first spring workout and was nagged by a stomach virus for parts of the first three weeks.
Posts to Darvish’s social media accounts this offseason showed him throwing off a mound with a fluid delivery at full speed. Nevertheless, this represents the biggest challenge of Darvish’s career, at least since he made his Nippon Professional Baseball debut less than a year after graduating from Tohoku High School.
The Cubs rotation fell short of manager Joe Maddon’s proclamation last spring that it could be the best in his four seasons with the team, in part because injuries limited Darvish to eight starts.
Also, a wrist cramp shortened his Cubs debut to 4 1/3 innings against an inexperienced Marlins team, and he was pulled from his penultimate start against the Braves on May 15 after only 61 pitches because of a right leg cramp despite striking out five in four innings.
Epstein, meanwhile, took no chances as he pursued and acquired left-hander Cole Hamels from the Rangers on July 27 — more than three weeks before Darvish was ruled out for the season. And Darvish’s injuries and Tyler Chatwood’s struggles forced the Cubs to pick up Hamels’ $20 million team option for 2019.