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'I have more confidence than last year': A healthy Yu Darvish eyes his return to dominance with the Cubs

Eleven years ago, Yu Darvish was in his own universe.

“Darvish only spoke in Japanese,” recalled Cubs assistant hitting coach Terrmel Sledge, a teammate of Darvish with the Nippon Ham Fighters of the Japan Pacific League for two seasons. “He was 21 and young. We foreigners spotted him and we recognized that year he really wants to be the best.

“He was in his own world, and that’s the first perspective you had on him. He really wanted to be the best.”

With a surgically repaired right arm, Darvish is eyeing a return to dominance that made him one of the marquee free-agent starters last offseason, leading to him signing a six-year, $126 million contract with the Cubs.

At the Cubs Convention last month, Darvish appeared to be more comfortable than he did last season, speaking in English without an interpreter while discussing optimism about contributing — thanks to a healthy right elbow.

Team President Theo Epstein emphasized two months ago that the Cubs hired Sledge, who played with Darvish in 2008-09, exclusively to aid hitting coach Anthony Iapoce and not because of his association with Darvish.

“I have more confidence than last year,” said Darvish, who agreed to terms with the Cubs only five days before their first spring workout and was nagged by a stomach virus for parts of the first three weeks.

Posts to Darvish social media accounts this offseason showed him throwing off a mound with a fluid delivery at full speed. Nevertheless, this represents the biggest challenge of Darvish’s career, at least since he made his Nippon Professional Baseball debut less than a year after graduating from Tohoku High School.

The Cubs rotation fell short of manager Joe Maddon’s proclamation last spring that it could be the best in his four seasons with the team, in part because injuries limited Darvish to eight starts. His discomfort initially was diagnosed in late June as an impingement in his right elbow, then a stress reaction in late July after an abbreviated minor-league rehab start, eventually leading to season-ending surgery in September to remove debris.

Also, a wrist cramp shortened his Cubs debut to 4 1/3 innings against an inexperienced Marlins team, and he was pulled from his penultimate start against the Braves on May 15 after only 61 pitches because of a right leg cramp despite striking out five in four innings.

Epstein, meanwhile, took no chances as he pursued and acquired left-hander Cole Hamels from the Rangers on July 27 — more than three weeks before Darvish was ruled out for the season. And Darvish’s injuries and Tyler Chatwood’s struggles forced the Cubs to pick up Hamels’ $20 million team option for 2019.

But Hamels’ return, while solidifying the rotation, left the Cubs with no room to make major upgrades, as they did the last four offseasons.

Kyle Hendricks and Hamels believe a healthy Darvish could be a difference-maker.

“It was unfortunate the year he had to go through,” Hendricks said. “It was tough having to watch him and go through that mentally. You feel bad for him. But he feels awesome, he’s healthy and he’s throwing a bit. It’s obviously great to hear.”

Before the Cubs shut Darvish down, he displayed snippets of his past dominance. He struck out 17 and allowed five hits in 12 innings covering two April starts against the National League Central rival Brewers and struck out seven and allowed two hits in six innings in a win against the Reds in his final start May 20.

“I know he wants to do very well, and he’s capable of so much,” said Hamels, who played with Darvish during the 2016-17 seasons with the Rangers. “He’s really good and can carry a month of starts for a team.

“So to put him between all of us and working together, it’s going to be a lights-out rotation. I know he’s ready to do it. And if he’s healthy, he’s one of the best in the game.”

Left-handed batters hit .276 with a .368 on-base percentage and .474 slugging percentage against Darvish in 2018, compared with a .195/.315/.377 slash line against right-handed hitters.

Darvish has six pitches but has relied less on his fastball and curve and more on his slider and cut fastball over the last three seasons, according to the Bill James Handbook. Darvish isn’t sure if the nagging discomfort in his elbow influenced his choice of pitches but said, “I want to change the percentage.”

“I will be meeting with (coach) Mike Borzello,” Darvish said in a convincing tone.

mgonzales@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @MDGonzales

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