Yu Darvish's post-balk meltdown unearths some ugly skeletons

CHICAGO -- If Chicago Cubs starter Yu Darvish isn’t used to scrutiny by now, he probably never will be. After a rough home debut at Wrigley Field, that scrutiny will only get that much more concentrated.

Darvish has been under the spotlight for most of his athletic career, but it has been especially intense over the past few months. First there was the pair of unsightly World Series starts, including Game 7, that punctuated his brief career with the Los Angeles Dodgers last autumn. Two starts, 3⅓ innings, nine runs allowed and two losses.

Then came a protracted stay on the free-agent market that finally ended when Chicago signed him to a six-year, $126 million deal just before spring training. And of course that contract has Darvish under the microscope to start the 2018 campaign.

Under that microscope, Friday’s specimen wasn’t a pretty one. Darvish wriggled his way through four scoreless innings by stranding six Braves baserunners, but fell apart in the fifth inning of Atlanta’s 4-0 victory Friday. The Cubs have now lost three of their first four games this season at Wrigley Field and fell below .500 at 6-7.

“I thought he had good stuff,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. “I thought he got better, getting his backdoor slider in there. Stuff was fine. Just blew up in one at-bat.”

Preston Tucker hit the big homer, but Atlanta’s Ozzie Albies was the real culprit in the unseating of Darvish. He’ll do that to a lot of pitchers over the course of his career. Cubs fans probably saw a little of Javier Baez in Albies on Friday, with his headlong diving stab to rob Kyle Schwarber of a base hit in the fourth, and another dive, this one to beat Jason Heyward’s throw into second for a double to get things started in Darvish’s fateful inning.

With Albies dancing off second base, Darvish was called for a balk. Darvish, catcher Willson Contreras and Maddon all pleaded their case with plate umpire Bruce Dreckman to no avail. Darvish struck out Freddie Freeman, but then proceeded to uncork a wild pitch to Nick Markakis as Albies raced home for the game’s first run.

“Obviously, everything went south after the balk,” Maddon said, “which was not a balk. Called a balk, but it was not a balk. It seemed to create a little bit of awkwardness, because he was doing really well to that point. Really well.”

It was that kind of post-adversity result that led to so much hand-wringing over Darvish’s response to the big stage of the Fall Classic. And until he comes through again on that big stage, that’s going to be part of the larger discussion around the talented righty. Darvish is a potent, top-of-the-rotation ace who has the highest strikeout rate of any qualifying pitcher in baseball since he reached the majors in 2012. The focus on his troubles is not fair, but that’s sports in the 21st century.

What happened after that first run was not a data point in Darvish’s favor. With the bases now clear, and the score a manageable 1-0, Darvish gave up a single to Markakis, a double to Kurt Suzuki and a missile-like, three-run homer to Tucker. The home run came on the slider that has given Darvish so much trouble of late. According to ESPN Stats & Information, all three homers Darvish has allowed so far have come off sliders. He allowed just five homers with the pitch all of last season.

“The first four innings up until Freeman, that was great,” Darvish said through an interpreter. “But after the balk, I was thrown off-guard. It went downhill from there.”

With the bases again clear after the home run, he issued two walks -- one to opposing starter Anibal Sanchez -- and a bunt single. That was it for Darvish, who burned through 105 pitches during his 4⅔ innings.

“I was thinking six innings [for Darvish],” Maddon said. “Then it came apart really quickly.”

What made the day particularly disappointing for Darvish was that he was so sharp in his previous outing, a win against Milwaukee in which he allowed just one run and two hits over six innings. After Friday’s game, Darvish now has a 6.00 ERA to show for his three starts during his nascent Cubs career.

“I definitely look at the good parts of the game,” Darvish said. “As well what I can take away, like the home run to Tucker today. I can look back and make improvements. I look at both the good and the bad.”

Darvish is unfailingly honest in his answers, offered up through his interpreter during postgame media sessions. So it wasn’t surprising that he admitted that the balk -- just the fourth of his career -- got to him.

“[I was] frustrated,” Darvish said. “Again, because it had never occurred before. It was in a critical situation, and then it happened. So that’s frustrating.”

Honesty is good, but effective pitches are better. The narrative about Darvish’s perceived failing in pressurized spots might be unfair, but it didn’t appear out of a vacuum. Yet the track record is mostly terrific. Darvish is, after all, a pitcher who has made four All-Star teams and has finished as high as second in the Cy Young balloting. His World Series was unfortunate, but before that, he pitched well in both the National League Division and NL Championship Series.

Darvish is in a tough spot from a perception standpoint, at least if you buy into the idea that you're viewed through your most recent results. Since the beginning of the 2017 World Series, he is 0-3 with a 8.84 ERA in five starts. In between the Series and this season, he signed a $126 million contract with one of the most visible franchises in sports.

Scrutiny comes with that territory. With a few more innings like Friday's fifth, the spotlight on Darvish will get only brighter.