Even if you file it under “just doing his job,” I don’t agree with the manner in which Alex Rodriguez chose to drag Yu Darvish during ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcast last week. That said, the comments about Darvish’s rehab itself weren’t necessarily untrue. The way the former pariah classified the Cubs’ clubhouse and the players’ perception of Darvish, however, was off base.
But the fallout from A-Rod’s made-for-TV assessment may have ended up galvanizing the Cubs and propelling Darvish both physically and psychologically. Before we get into that, let’s have another look at some of what Rodriguez said during the late innings of that game between the Cubs and Cardinals.
So he’ll let the team know when he’s ready, which, let me just tell you what that means to a clubhouse. You lose respect quickly. And my concern for him – because he’s a great young talent – is it may take two or three or four years and you may never get that back.
So this is an issue that, if you’re Cubs Nation, you have to watch the Yu Darvish development because it’s not good inside that clubhouse right now.
When you have 25 players coming to the stadium, you’re there to do one thing and that’s win a ballgame. You want all the energy, all the focus, all the analytics, all the stretching: What are we going to do today to win a ballgame?
And when you have a guy that signs an enormous contract and he’s sitting down – and you walk in the training room, and he’s got two trainers working on him, you go into the video room and you have a guy looking at video – he should be in Arizona somewhere getting treated. But don’t get in the way of 25 players going after one mission – to win a ballgame.
Joe Maddon referred to it as a “diatribe” and “soliloquy,” calling A-Rod’s delivery “plastic and probably rehearsed” while chastising him for painting what Maddon felt was an unfair picture. Darvish’s agent, Joel Wolfe, took things a step further (subscription required), calling the broadcaster “classless” and noting sarcastically that “apparently A-Rod is both a doctor and a sports psychologist and the clubhouse insider for the Cubs.”
Numerous teammates, including Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo have publicly come out in support of the injured pitcher. The latter even gave Darvish a hug and told him he loved him. Darvish joked that he wasn’t sure if Rizzo meant it and he demurred when given the chance to clap back at his vocal detractor, but it’s clear that something changed in the wake of A-Rod’s comments.
Though it’s probably purely coincidental in nature, Darvish’s throwing session two days after that Sunday contest was the first time he’d thrown pain-free since going on the DL. His tone seemed different as well, more confident.
“For the first time in two months, I felt nothing from the first pitch, playing catch, to the last [in the] bullpen session,” Darvish told the media through his interpreter. “This is the actual starting point. I need to build up the self-confidence from within from this point on.”
That last part is important because it speaks to the pitcher’s psyche, though we shouldn’t be getting that confused with the idea that he’s admitting to being mentally weak. That narrative will persist until Darvish douses it with ether and sets it ablaze, but it’s impossible to deny that there are factors that have impacted his mental state since joining the Cubs.
Darvish no doubt felt the pressure of both his big contract and the expectations of a perennial playoff team the moment he put pen to paper. Jon Lester admitted to feeling similar anxiety after signing his own free agent deal prior to the 2015 season. It didn’t help Darvish that the man ostensibly signed to recruit and play alongside him, Chris Gimenez, basically tossed his teammate under the bus when it came to how Darvish felt fans viewed him.
While A-Rod’s comments undoubtedly pissed Darvish off, they also united the entire Cubs organization — along with most of their fans — in support. Sort of an us vs. the world mentality, if you can call it that. It’s like in countless movies where someone in a fight discovers that their opponent has drawn blood and they’re suddenly motivated to kick ass.
Maybe Darvish needed a little bit of a chip on his shoulder or even just a pat on the back. Maybe it was simply a matter of timing and we’d be seeing the same things had A-Rod offered glowing praise of the pitcher’s rehab process and clubhouse presence. Whatever the case, Darvish seems much more at ease with himself and his new team.
‘‘He seems a little more upbeat,’’ Joe Maddon told the media this past Saturday. ‘‘His smile was easier. I try to read body language and faces, and when you ask pitchers how they’re feeling, they reveal what’s going on, and normally it is the smile. I took that as a good thing.’’
Call me crazy, but I saw the same thing in Sunday’s “Dress Like Pedro Strop” travel theme. There was Darvish right in the middle of the team photo with his big gold chain and an almost undetectable smirk beneath a hat that was tilted to the wrong side.
Be like Strop. pic.twitter.com/ZKCvUq5jV1
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) August 5, 2018
It’s almost as though Darvish had previously been trying to be who he thought the Cubs and their fans wanted him to be, and that only now is he starting to feel like himself. Again, that could just be me projecting what I want to see.
We’ll still have to wait a few weeks to find out whether any of these changes, real or imagined, translate to a return and improved performance. Darvish threw 55 pitches in the bullpen this past Saturday and should be ready for a simulated game later this week. Based on how that goes, the Cubs are saying that the next step is for him to move immediately into a rehab assignment.
That could mean having Darvish back in the rotation by mid-August, though he’ll probably need at least two minor-league starts. Even so, we’re looking at perhaps the series against the Tigers in Detroit or home against the Reds in a little over two weeks. Optimistic, but doable.
So I will end by giving reluctant credit to Rodriguez for falling bass-ackwards into a lever that may have activated the Yu Darvish Confidence Machine. Now I just wonder what the broadcaster will do for an encore when he calls the Cubs/Nationals game this coming Sunday.