SAN DIEGO -- The games are getting more and more important for the Chicago Cubs, which means one thing for a team whose starting rotation features pennant race stalwarts Jon Lester, Cole Hamels and Kyle Hendricks:
Give the ball to Yu Darvish.
In what might be the biggest surprise in a year of them for the up-and-down Cubs, their go-to guy on the mound is the starter who was their least accomplished a year ago -- as well as the least liked by the fan base. If Chicago is going to get anywhere this month -- or next -- it's going to need Darvish to lead the way. That was unthinkable just a few months ago.
"He has total command of what he's doing out there right now," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after his team's 4-1 win over the San Diego Padres on Thursday. "He wants to be out there."
That last thought from Maddon might be the most important. Darvish isn't shying away from the challenge ahead. His 14 strikeouts against the Padres were his most in a game since 2013 and put him over the 200- strikeout mark for the season. He wanted the ball to start the second half of the season -- about the time his game started to come together -- and he wants it in the big games to come.
The Cubs are fighting for their playoff lives -- they are currently tied with the Milwaukee Brewers for the second wild-card spot in the National League -- and can count on few things to go right for them on a nightly basis. But Darvish is one of them. Despite some recent forearm stiffness, he hasn't missed a beat. On Thursday, he threw 18 curveballs against the Padres, seven of them to end at-bats. San Diego went 0-for-7 with seven strikeouts in those at-bats. The curve is a pitch he has revisited since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2015 and he credits teammate Craig Kimbrel for showing him a new way to throw it.
"His uncanny command of his breaking ball is ridiculously good, especially against left-handers," Maddon said. "There's nothing to say negative about his performance. It was great."
With Lester and Hamels, as well as a few other veterans struggling, Darvish can't afford to stop now. He has set the bar so high for himself that when he walked two batters in the same inning Thursday, it was almost stunning. In fact, it was the first time he had done that since May 31. Of course, he got out of the jam, going six shutout innings and throwing 110 pitches.
"He's in a good spot right now," teammate Anthony Rizzo said.
In fact, Darvish is in a better spot than his team as the Cubs still can't get out of their own way on the road. They went 3-5 on their eight-game trip, while opening the door for the Brewers to reenter the playoff picture. The Darvish gem on Thursday prevented an unthinkable series loss to the Padres, but did it merely delay a collapse that some fans feel is inevitable? Darvish and Rizzo are not by any means ready to concede that point.
"I know the last 10 days was tough, but we still have to compete each and every day," Darvish said.
Meanwhile, Rizzo might have a new place in the batting order as the Cubs continue to struggle with the leadoff spot. He returned to the top of the order Thursday, walking and scoring a run in the first inning while providing the spark all leadoff men strive for. Is he all-in for hitting leadoff?
"I'm all-in on winning," Rizzo said. "We have to win. Whatever it takes. ... I've had a good amount of at-bats in this league to know what pitchers are doing. Batting first or ninth doesn't matter."
There's a desperation in Rizzo's voice that you don't hear very often. The calming, "we have time" mantra has been replaced by a win-at-all-costs narrative. The somber locker room after a shutout loss Wednesday morphed into a positive vibe after Darvish's performance Thursday. Add in the fact that the Cubs begin a 10-game homestand Friday, and the team has one last opportunity to put themselves in the right position for the final days of the season -- and the final road trip.
For Maddon, it means directing everything with a steady hand. "Everyone likes anger at these moments or being upset," Maddon said of the Cubs' tenuous position. "It's just not the right way to do things. For me, it's continuing of the same process. A different method is not going to extrapolate what you're looking for."
Of course, that doesn't apply to Darvish, who set out to change the narrative after a dismal 2018 season. Fitting in as one of the pieces this year seemingly would have been just fine, but instead, he has taken over the role of ace. Over his past 11 starts, including Thursday, Darvish has a 2.44 ERA while giving up only 46 hits in 66⅓ innings. He has struck out 93 while walking six -- and had the gall to say this about Thursday's outing: "Not good enough, but I threw the right pitch in the right situation."
It was more than good enough for the Cubs, who are desperately seeking sparks of life wherever they can find them. And what was unthinkable at one time has become almost a sure thing: If the Cubs have the luxury of lining up their rotation, Darvish is now the man at the top, be it for a wild-card game, Game 1 of a division series or even a tiebreaking Game No. 163.
Asked if he would want the ball in such a situation, Darvish gave a nod but kept his thoughts close to the vest. "I don't want to think too much [ahead]," he said. "I want to focus on each pitch."
Maddon wouldn't go there either, not with such a precarious hold on a playoff spot.
"That's something you think about when you get closer to the finish line," he said.
But anyone who has followed the Cubs knows the situation at hand. Veterans who had been considered sure things are no longer necessarily reliable. And what was once considered a bad free-agent signing has now produced the Cubs' savior on the mound.
Rizzo was asked how he would prepare to face Darvish, who's at the top of his game.
"I'd probably just hit right-handed," he said with a smile.
Smiles have been hard to come by for the Cubs on the road this season, but watching Darvish perform provided a needed lift. Now he just has to do it again. And again. And perhaps again.