Yu Darvish delivers first taste of the dominance the Cubs need

PHOENIX -- Though he was playing in only his 15th career game -- and catching Yu Darvish for the first time -- Chicago Cubs catcher Taylor Davis knows a good thing when he sees it. After getting the best view of some of Darvish's best stuff Saturday night, Davis was ready to deliver a hopeful message for Cubs fans.

"That was the Yu the league has seen," Davis said after the Cubs' 9-1 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks. "Hopefully, that's the Yu the league sees for the rest of his career."

Unfortunately, the league has mostly seen the Darvish of the first two innings Saturday when he walked three -- including the opposing pitcher -- hit a batter and gave up a double. But an unusual thing happened on the way to another meltdown. It didn't. He got the final two outs in the first inning, leaving the bases loaded, then stranded two more in the second, without a single Diamondback crossing the plate. It's exactly the type of growth and fortitude the Cubs have been looking for since signing him to a six-year, $126 million before last season.

"We needed him to do the escape thing," manager Joe Maddon said.

Escape he did, and then once the veteran got past the rough start -- and the Cubs scored a few runs for him -- the Darvish his catcher was referring to showed up.

"I think he's historically a front-runner," Maddon said. "When you give him a lead like that he normally does pretty well. And he did."

In fact, Darvish is 47-11 in his career with a 2.50 ERA when his team scores first. That kind of statistic aligns with his personality, and so when the Cubs scored five runs in the third inning, Darvish was set up for success.

Good slider after good slider led to easier innings while his fastball had the life the Cubs have only seen in flashes. What started as a shaky 56-pitch night after the first two frames, ended up a six-inning, 110-pitch affair. He survived, then thrived.

"The first two were rough but after that I felt pretty good about command and the stuff," Darvish said.

The significance of the outing is simple: It's truly the first one this season that could be deemed a turning point for Darvish as a Cub. By itself, it is not a guarantee for the future, but until now there was always a caveat with his outings. After all, he has compiled a 5.02 ERA in April.

"Not great but not really bad," Darvish said of his month. "Making progress."

His beauty of a split-finger pitch to Eduardo Escobar to end the second looked like progress. So was striking out the side in the third when he ramped up a fastball to 97 mph in getting Christian Walker swinging. Walker struck out three times against Darvish, a big part of Darvish's eight-strikeout effort.

Asked why he thinks he might be turning a corner, Darvish said, "The last four innings. I didn't have that feeling in my last five starts."

It would be easy to say the Cubs have been here before with their enigmatic pitcher, but that wouldn't really be true. Darvish got hurt last season before any kind of a full turnaround could even take place. So here he is, coming off his best performance of the season -- one that tested him early, then saw his stuff dominate. The importance of grinding through a couple of innings and then taking control with his overwhelming stuff can't be overstated.

"After the third [inning], that was one heck of a performance," Davis said.

Maddon added: "He started finding the strike zone. He found his groove, got his confidence."

And the Cubs got a win because of it -- only Darvish's third since he signed with Chicago. In doing so, Darvish made it through six innings for the first time this season. He was asked what's next for him.

"Seven innings," he deadpanned.

That's music to his manager's ears. Maddon has an aging staff and a sometimes shaky bullpen. Getting maximum results out of Darvish feels pretty important to the Cubs' success this season. Maddon not only needs him to pitch deep into his games, he likes him there. If Saturday is any indication, Cubs fans will too.

"When he gets going, you may see some of his better work between 90 and 110 [pitches]," Maddon said. "Moving down the road, when he gets on a roll, I want to stay out of his way."