MESA, Ariz. — It was only a meaningless spring-training game, his first outing of the spring Tuesday, but for Chicago Cubs starter Yu Darvish, it meant everything.
“I was pretty excited,’’ Darvish said in English. “Before, I would feel like this was a practice game. Today, it was like this was the first outing in my life. I haven’t thrown in the last seven months. I was so excited.’’
Darvish, who signed a six-year, $126 million free-agent contract last winter, was limited to only eight starts because of a stress reaction to his elbow and a biceps strain. He spent the season being vilified, pitching only 40 innings and winning one game.
Oh, it was hardly vintage Darvish on Tuesday. He walked four of the eight batters he faced, and induced only one swing-and-miss in the 37 pitches he threw, with only 17 strikes. He couldn’t command his breaking pitches.
Yet he was routinely hitting 94 mph to 96 mph on the radar gun, pronounced himself healthy and pain-free and couldn’t stop smiling.
“I feel like I’m smiling more than I have in the last seven years,” Darvish said.
Just because he’s healthy?
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“Healthy,’’ he said, “and I learned a lot of things from last year.’’
When asked to elaborate, he didn’t hesitate.
“Before, I worry about the future,’’ he said. “I feared the future. Now, I am living now. That makes me more confident, and I feel more happy.’’
Certainly, he feels much more acclimated with his teammates and organization than a year ago. He has even abandoned his interpreter and speaks almost flawless English during interviews.
“The interpreter is expensive,’’ Darvish said, drawing loud laughter from the reporters surrounding him. “Good for me, too, I have a great experience with you guys and I can use more English.’’
Now, he must start winning, and make it good for the Cubs organization and passionate fanbase, too. Manager Joe Maddon and his teammates believe it’s simply a matter of time.
“He looks like himself now,’’ said Cubs infielder David Bote, who took batting practice for the first time since being beaned Sunday by San Francisco Giants ace Madison Bumgarner. “What I heard, he’s such a happy guy, but you didn’t see it last year because of the injuries. He was very hard on himself.
“I see the joy back in Yu’s face, and that’s good to see. I think we’ll see a good Yu Darvish this year.’’
Says Maddon: “He appears to be much more relaxed, definitely into the flow of things a lot more easily this year. You can see the confidence.
“We’re all eager to watch this.’’
Five more weeks remain in spring training, with all eyes on him for every start he makes.
Then comes the real test — the regular season — and the Cubs will learn whether that confidence and comfort level stay strong or suddenly wane.
Darvish believes he’ll be back, better than ever.
“I’m ready,’’ he said, “to play for this team.’’
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