Opinion: In spring start, Yu Darvish flashes reasons Padres can dream on greatness this season

PEORIA, Ariz. — There he was standing on the mound, wearing the brown-and-gold uniform in a spring-training game for the first time, representing the San Diego Padres’ hopes and dreams.

The Padres loaded up all winter. They grabbed frontline starters and locked up stars, trying to scare their neighbors up the I-5 Freeway.

Well, if the Padres are going to interrupt the Los Angeles Dodgers’ dynasty hopes, no one is more important than Yu Darvish, who showed in his first spring training start why the Padres acquired him from the Chicago Cubs in a salary dump.

Darvish dazzled in his debut Sunday, striking out four batters in two innings against the Kansas City Royals. He threw seven different pitches, and permitted just one baserunner, a single. He certainly looked like the guy who dominated the NL Central last year, going 8-3 with a 2.01 ERA and finishing second to Trevor Bauer, then with the Cincinnati Reds, in the Cy Young race.

San Diego Padres pitcher Yu Darvish is coming off a season in which he finished second in the Cy Young race. (Photo: Charlie Riedel, AP)

Now, Darvish and Bauer are back in the same division once again.

The Dodgers dropped $102 million on a three-year deal to bring Bauer to Los Angeles.

For Darvish, the Padres traded five low-level prospects and picked up the remaining three years and $59 million on his contract.

The Padres believe that Darvish, 34, is just what they need to lead perhaps the most talented pitching staff in the NL.

Darvish did not live up to his contract (six years, $126 million) in the early years with the Cubs, starting only eight games because an injury in 2018 and then struggling in the first half of 2019. 

But he started to pitch like the Cubs envisioned in the second half, posting a 4-4 record, 2.76 ERA, 118 strikeouts and seven walks in 81 2/3 innings.

Proving it was no fluke, he looked even better last year in the 60-game truncated season, striking out 93 batters with 14 walks in 76 innings. He pitched well in his postseason start, too, giving up two runs in 6 2/3 innings against the Miami Marlins.

“Just looking back at my whole career, I think I'm at my best right now," Darvish said Sunday. 

Who would dare disagree?

“It’s as good a combination of power, finesse, multiple pitches as anybody in the game,” Padres GM A.J. Preller said this spring. “His last season and a half has been as productive as anybody in the game. He's a force."

Undoubtedly, the Padres are counting on him to bring them their first World Series in their 52-year history.  

“I think this is one of the best teams in baseball right now," Darvish said earlier this spring.

Darvish sees the talent surrounding him on the field. He watches the young talent with pitchers like Dinelson Lamet, Adrian Morejon, Chris Paddack and MacKenzie Gore, and gets a kick out of being the one to answer their questions.

“I’m not sure if this is the proper way to put it, but they’re cute, in a sense," Darvish said. "I’ve been in the league long enough and I probably would be considered a veteran, but being around these young guys, I don’t actually feel like being a veteran or feeling too old.

“I’m not thinking so much about giving them advice. I’m more thinking about trying to give them an environment where they feel comfortable in. I think, someone like myself and maybe Blake Snell, us veterans should try to provide an environment that these young players feel comfortable in.”

The front office and coaching staff have made Darvish comfortable as well.

“They’ve been great," Darvish said. “They’ve been really, really supportive. I feel like they’ve given me the freedom to get myself ready. I’m really appreciative of that.

“I didn’t feel like I was pitching for a new team. It felt just kind of felt normal actually wearing the uniform."

Certainly, it will help to have Victor Caratini, his personal catcher, who was also included in the trade. Caratini has caught him more than any catcher in his career. In his past 25 starts, all caught by Caratini, Darvish is yielding a 2.40 ERA, and a .204 opponent’s batting average with 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings.

They have been experimenting on a new splitter, too, with the help of adviser Hideo Nomo, the former Dodgers All-Star pitcher.

“That’s the beautiful part of Darvish," said Padres manager Jayce Tingler. “He can beat you with a lot of different ways. Some of it is planned. Some of it is feel.

“The more you see it, the appreciation, just how he continues to fine-tune his game what he can do with a baseball."

Next up: What he can do for a franchise and a hungry fanbase looking to topple the Dodgers, the reigning World Series champions. .

Follow Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

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