How Yu Darvish finally found the strike zone and turned his season around

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NEW YORK -- The run has been historic, though with an under-the-radar feel to it. Perhaps it's because he has given up a few home runs in between the pinpoint command. Either way, the performance Chicago Cubs righty Yu Darvish is putting on right now should vault him near the top for the National League's Comeback Player of the Year Award. He has been that good.

And now Darvish will be called upon to be the team's stopper as the Cubs hit New York after a stunning home sweep at the hands of the Washington Nationals.

Consider this: Darvish is the first pitcher since at least 1893 to strike out eight or more batters, without issuing a walk, in five consecutive starts. And if he gets through the first inning without giving up a free pass to the Mets on Tuesday night, he'll own the longest MLB walkless streak of the season.

"He just has incredible command over a variety of pitches," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said when asked what's responsible for the streak. "I don't know if I've ever witnessed -- we saw Jake Arrieta -- I'm talking about just purely commanding a baseball and being inventive.

"He was throwing a knuckle curve [Wednesday] night. He felt it in the bullpen and broke it out in the game. And it was great. He's able to manipulate his hand and his arm in ways most guys cannot. He's just a different level of talent. That's why."

It's high praise around Chicago to invoke Arrieta's name in comparison to anyone, considering the former Cubs hurler's success. But when you go 31⅓ innings pitched without walking anyone, while striking out 46, you deserve the kind of praise Darvish is garnering.

Even more intriguing is the dramatic difference in his results within this season.

On May 9, after eight starts, Darvish led the league in walks with 33, as his fastball was nonexistent. It got hit or couldn't find the strike zone. But a confidence boost came a couple of months into the season, when Darvish's mind freed up.

The pain in his elbow, which ended last season prematurely for him, had been gone since offseason surgery. But the doubt in his mind about that pain lingered; as soon as he realized it wasn't returning, his fastball took off -- and so did his game. The Cubs paint a picture of a pitcher so locked into his craft, it's almost scary.

"His routine has gone to the next level," Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy said. "His four-day prep, from what he eats, to when he works out, how he works out, what he does in the bullpen, the visualization stuff the day before he starts, going over the lineup, it's all come together. The routine has been huge, plus the confidence he's showing."

The results, particularly with his fastball, have been night and day. Hottovy points to early June when things began to change. In his first 13 starts, Darvish was in the strike zone with his fastball 49% of the time. In his past 13, it's up to 57%. His strike percentage went from 56% to 70%.

Perhaps most compelling is Darvish's chase rate. That also saw a huge jump, from 21% in his first 13 starts to 32% in his past 13. The more strikes he has thrown with his fastball, the more opposing hitters have been willing to chase his array of off-speed pitches, which now features a devastating split-finger.

"We all know he can spin the baseball and do what he wants to do with it, but the fastball, early in the season, wasn't quite there," Hottovy opined. "He was searching for that command."

Darvish has found that command -- and then some. All it took was some confidence. Confidence the pain wouldn't return while using the correct mechanics, as well as confidence just to throw the fastball. In fact, some believe he isn't throwing it enough.

Darvish is feeling so good right now, he is not shy in defending himself. A recent Twitter exchange with a Chicago media member about his pitch selection after his most recent start -- Darvish gave up four home runs -- would never have happened in the past.

Unlike many social media interactions, this one wasn't full of insults and accusations. Darvish simply stated the facts as he sees them. He didn't get defensive; that's a sign of someone comfortable in his own skin, according to his pitching coach.

"He's intelligent and knows how to find data on his own," Hottovy said of the twitter exchange. "He knows what he wants to do and knows how to read the reports on his own. He comes to the meetings as prepared as anyone. He's just locked in."

It has all paid off with a strike percentage that has jumped to an eye-popping 72% over his past five starts, while hitters are chasing at 38%. The ability to get hitters out inside and outside of the zone has finally become elite for Darvish as a Cub. The team desperately needs him to continue on the same path -- while reducing some home run totals -- if it wants to make the postseason. The Cubs need him that much.

"The biggest moment for me this year, it came in early July; he just started to understand what we meant by the way we were talking regarding certain pitches in certain situations," Hottovy explained. "He's understanding swing paths and what guys want to do with him. He can counteract that.

"I don't know if he trusted the process enough and his ability enough to do what we asked before. Now he does."