Baseball / MLB

Darvish admits he felt pressure last season after signing big deal with Cubs

AP

Yu Darvish felt stress after signing a $126 million, six-year contract with the Chicago Cubs.

“At the time I didn’t say anything about that, but I was thinking I should do something for the Cubs. I should win 20 games,” he said Wednesday. “This year I want to be myself. I am feeling less pressure.”

Darvish went 1-3 with 4.95 ERA in eight starts during 2018, the last coming on May 20. He was sidelined by triceps and elbow injuries, and his season ended in August when an MRI showed a stress reaction in his arm after one inning of a rehab start.

The 32-year-old right-hander spoke in English, a sign he is feeling more comfortable, after his first bullpen session of spring training.

“I am feeling I am family,” he said. “I feel good right now.”

Darvish was a four-time All-Star with the Texas Rangers. He was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers in July 2017 and struggled in the World Series, losing Games 3 and 7 against Houston.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon said the fact that Darvish opened up about last year’s struggles is a sign of him maturing.

“It is always impressive when somebody exposes himself, especially on this level,” Maddon said. “It is a part of moving forward. Give him credit. I was getting to know about him last year, so I didn’t know all of that about him.”

Fellow starter Jon Lester added making the move to another organization can be difficult. After spending his first 8½ years with Boston, Lester was traded to Oakland and then joined the Cubs.

“That first year is a little tough,” Lester said. “Everybody handles it a different way. He’s unique coming from Japan and Texas and now here and going through with what he went through with the Dodgers. He had a lot on his plate and having to try and pitch through some things he wasn’t comfortable pitching through. You want to make a good impression with everybody, and that includes the fans. I’m sure it was tough on him.”

Darvish reported at 104 kg, down 4.5 kg from last year. He said he spent more time in a gym and ate better.

“He looks huge, like jacked,” reliever Steve Cishek said. “It’s encouraging to see. Obviously, he was disappointed he couldn’t be out on the field last year. As a competitor you want to see your teammates fight through that stuff.”

A healthy Darvish would mean more depth for an already strong rotation that helped the Cubs win 95 games last season.

“If you slide him in there that makes our rotation that much deeper, which you need throughout the season,” Lester said. “It’s a huge boost for us if we get the Darvish we all know he can be. Hopefully everything is behind him as far as his arm. I’m sure it is a peace of mind for him to go out and worry just about pitching.”

No regrets for Ohtani on 2018

Shohei Ohtani tossed his water bottle toward a clubhouse garbage can and missed, instead landing it in a laundry bin. He laughed out loud, smiled big as he so often does, then retrieved the trash and put it in the proper place.

That’s about as close to throwing as the two-way star is right now.

Ohtani wouldn’t change how he handled his elbow injury late last year, continuing to hit for the Angels until season’s end even if it meant delaying reconstructive surgery and his ability to pitch again until 2020.

“I have no regrets about what happened last year. That’s what the team thought about me, the plan,” Ohtani said through interpreter Ippei Mizuhara. “In the end it didn’t work out but I still have no regrets.”

The reigning AL Rookie of the Year is recovering from an Oct. 1 Tommy John surgery with the hope he will be able to bat in the Los Angeles lineup as early as May if all stays on schedule.

“There’s a lot of variables. That’s the goal I’m shooting for but there might be some setbacks here and there,” Ohtani said. “If not, that’s what I’m trying to go for.”

At Tempe Diablo Stadium, the scene Wednesday was a far cry from a year ago when Ohtani showed up at spring training with fanfare and faced a huge media contingent following his every move. For now, he isn’t even on the field as he works out inside.

Even the second time around, “I feel just as nervous as last year, my first year.”

Ohtani acknowledged that’s partly because he’s behind schedule with the extensive rehab and will have to “catch up to everybody.”

“It’s going to be a slow process,” new manager Brad Ausmus said ahead of his club’s first on-field session for pitchers and catchers. “He gets his workouts in. Right now he’ll be mostly inside. We need to protect this guy long term, so we’re hoping for May but if it goes longer it goes longer.”

The 24-year-old Ohtani spent time back home in Japan this offseason working through his rehabilitation, which right now includes dry swings only in terms of his hitting preparation.

Ohtani said everything is going smoothly at this stage.

“So far there’s nothing in my elbow, I don’t feel anything there. It’s been great,” he said. “I just need to watch my effort level, try to keep it down and listen to the trainers.”

Ohtani went 4-2 with a 3.31 ERA in 10 starts as a pitcher. He played 104 games overall as a rookie, hitting .285 with 22 homers and 61 RBIs.

While the Angels can’t wait to get Ohtani healthy to hit, they won’t rush him. He and Albert Pujols are expected to share designated hitter duties, with Pujols playing first on days Ohtani hits — that is, if Pujols is physically fine and performing, otherwise Justin Bour becomes an option. The free agent first baseman signed a $2.5 million, one-year deal in December.

“That’s why we’re saying we’re going to be extremely cautious because we don’t want the fact that he might be able to DH affect him being able to pitch in 2020,” Ausmus said of Ohtani.

Ohtani has accepted this year will be about what he can do at the plate.

“This season I’m obviously going to be prioritizing my hitting. That’s what I’m going to focus on right now,” he said. “We can push back the pitching because I’m not going to be pitching this season. So the plan is to get back hitting first and take it easy on the pitching side.”