Chicago Cubs pitcher Yu Darvish still has trepidation about playing during the COVID-19 pandemic, something he expressed shortly after pitching the last game of spring training four months ago.
And he hasn’t closed the door on opting out of this season, particularly because of the delays in testing that have pushed back the start of several workouts.
Asked via an interpreter Sunday if he might change his mind at some point about pitching in the 60-game season, Darvish said: “Maybe. But at this point, no, I don’t think so.”
Darvish, 33, became a prophet shortly after pitching his last spring training game March 11, the day the NBA suspended its season after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus.
“At some point, somebody will get the coronavirus, I think,” Darvish said at the time. “If somebody will get it, I think MLB will do the same thing as NBA.”
MLB suspended spring training and delayed season openers the next day.
Fast forward to Sunday, and Darvish’s apprehension persists.
“Yes, definitely, I still have concerns,” he said.
His apprehension appears to be the strongest of the players the Cubs have made available — including cancer survivors Anthony Rizzo and Jon Lester — since workouts resumed July 3.
As of Sunday, the Cubs were the only team without a positive test from any of their players, and President Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and manager David Ross have stressed the need for players to follow health and safety protocols for themselves and their families.
That commitment and diligence persuaded Darvish — who emerged as the staff ace last year by posting a 2.76 ERA with 118 strikeouts and only seven walks in 81? innings after the All-Star break — to report for the shortened season.
“When I came here, I made sure everyone was doing the right thing,” he said. “I had in my mind if they were not, I was ready to go home.”
Darvish’s concerns were noticeable from the first workout, when he wore a face mask that he continued to wear the next night, when he wasn’t pitching in an intrasquad game.
“I know some of the players aren’t comfortable wearing it, but they do,” Darvish said. “So it’s nice to see. I’m used to wearing this all the time, so I’m very comfortable about this.”
Darvish said it’s customary for people in his native Japan to wear masks when they are sick. He immediately thought of the safety of his family when the pandemic struck this spring.
“It was tough because I have small children (with me) during the spring,” Darvish said. “We had a lot of thoughts about that. It was a tough decision, but everybody’s (playing).
“All my teammates have families. Everyone has concerns, but everybody decided to play. So it makes it a little bit easier for me to make the decision to play.”
Darvish said he was surprised to learn that Cubs pitching coach Tommy Hottovy was quarantined for 30 days after contracting COVID-19.
“At some point, I think everyone is going to get (the coronavirus),” Darvish said. “It’s good to know somebody has it and has experience, so I’ll be able to ask him any questions. I’m glad he’s OK now.”
Assuming Darvish sticks with his commitment to play, the Cubs expect plenty of production from him based on his strong second half and his repertoire of pitches that now includes what he calls a “supreme” pitch — a hybrid two-seam, split-finger fastball.
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“I’ve seen guys with good command,” manager David Ross said. “I’ve never seen or had to catch somebody with the pitch mix that he’s capable of. Being able to manipulate the baseball like that reminds me of (when) Clay Buchholz had a really good run in Boston in 2013 (12-1, 1.74 ERA) before he got hurt.”
Darvish’s second-half performance validated the Cubs’ hopes when they signed him to a six-year, $126 million contract before the 2018 season. His first season in Chicago was hampered by bouts of wildness and a right elbow injury that eventually required surgery.
“When I wasn’t pitching well, all the (coaching) staff, the front office and everyone in this organization helped me out,” Darvish said. “(They gave me) anything I needed. I’d like to pay them back and pitch well.”
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