SAN DIEGO — Maybe Yu Darvish was right last week when he said the Cubs “don’t need me.”
But don’t believe it.
It wasn’t convincing then, and the point didn’t get any better with age a week later.
In fact, the Cubs’ 3-1 victory over their former rotation-ace teammate on Wednesday in San Diego amounted to a nine-inning thesis on why they deserve a chance to be buyers at next month’s trade deadline and why the guy they beat might be exactly the guy they need.
That ship sailed, of course, when the Cubs salary-dumped the final three years and $59 million of Darvish’s contract in a trade to the Padres in January.
But the final game of a daunting West Coast trip to San Francisco and San Diego against a 2020 Cy Young runner-up pitching like a candidate again this year showed many of the hallmarks of teams that win in October — from Jake Arrieta responding to the high-profile matchup with a bounce-back start to playoff veteran Joc Pederson’s big, tying homer in the fourth to shutdown closer Craig Kimbrel finishing off four more scoreless innings from a playoff-caliber bullpen.
This is a Cubs team that has shown enough unexpected depth among the hitters and relief corps in the face of an injury-list carousel to go 24-12 since a rough April and suggest it has enough left in the seventh year of its competitive window to at least hang with anybody in the National League Central.
Not to mention the top of the NL East (3-0 against the Mets) and NL West (9-4 against the Padres, Dodgers and Giants) — at least so far.
It’s a team with an early MVP candidate in Kris Bryant, seasoned left-handed power in Pederson and Anthony Rizzo, a premier catcher in Willson Contreras, All-Star shortstop in Javy Báez, Gold Gloves sprinkled all over the field, a diverse bench, deep bullpen and a possible Hall of Fame closer.
The only thing it’s missing is the frontline power-stuff starter they dumped for cost-cutting.
The right-hander who toyed with the Cubs for three perfect innings before Pederson’s homer and still pitched well enough for seven innings to win with even modest run support.
Darvish struck out eight and gave up only three hits (and two runs).
But the big number is the seven. It was the sixth time this season he has pitched at least seven innings.
The entire Cubs rotation has done it five times.
That he has done it with a 2.28 ERA is a big part of why Wednesday marked only the second Padres loss in 13 of his starts (he gave up one run in seven innings in the other and was shut out by the Dodgers).
Imagine where the Cubs might be if they still had that production in their rotation — like they did during last year’s 60-game season that finished with a division title.
Imagine if they could add anybody like that at the deadline to put at the front of a rotation that then begins to resemble one that matches up with the big boys in October — with Kyle Hendricks, Arrieta and potentially Adbert Alzolay, the rookie with the electric slider, following the ace.
“It’s a luxury to be able to think like that,” Hendricks said. “Obviously, I love Yu and what he did and the way he throws. He’s a bona fide ace — I mean, one of the best guys in the league. Clearly, it would be a huge boost if we had him.”
But Hendricks said the focus now is on trying to continue the improvement in the rotation since an ugly April for a group that “looked ourselves in the mirror and said, ‘It starts with us. We have to be better.’ “
That’s all they could do once ownership and, in turn, the front office sent the message over the winter that they were on their own — that those going all in to try to win anything in 2021 did not include the people writing the checks.
“I mean, you look at [Darvish’s] stuff, and he’s going to have years that are consistent with last year just because he’s so good, because he has so many different pitches; he’s a competitor; he’s smart; he’s a thinker,” said Bryant of the four-time All-Star, who has reached another elite level of power and consistency — in his 30s — since the middle of 2019.
Only to be traded by the big-revenue team from Chicago for payroll relief, coming off a division title they would not have won without him.
“I don’t know what they were thinking in that moment,” Bryant said. “Yeah, maybe it was money. But it’s easy to look back on things and be like we should have done this, this and this. But at the same time …”
Like Hendricks, Bryant said the focus is on trying to continue the team offensive bounce-back from April and enjoying the success they’re carrying into mid-June.
“Maybe they didn’t think that we would do this, in terms of the front office [thinking] that our offense would be like this,” Bryant said. “And maybe we’ll prove them wrong.”
Maybe they’ll even force their hand next month at the deadline.
Max Scherzer, anyone?
That was Darvish’s suggestion for the Cubs last week when he talked about the trade, his old friends, his new digs and what comes next.
Even on the day he tried to beat the Cubs, he contributed to the good-vibes theme of the Cubs core’s 2021 season — trolling Rizzo by stealing the first baseman’s walkup music when he batted Wednesday.
Rizzo threw his arms up in bemusement, both players smiling big. And they texted after the game, Darvish said.
“I think he was pretty happy about it,” Darvish said.
So imagine if they still had him on their side.
But keep an eye on the next few weeks. Because if they keep playing well, the guys upstairs are going to have to replace him next month.
If they don’t? And if they fall short without him?
Then the only thing we’ll know for sure: Missing October starts in January.