Yu Darvish stared at his cleats as he finished the worst inning of his brief, confounding career as a Dodger. His team would play 18 innings of baseball and lose twice in Saturday’s doubleheader, but no inning mattered more than the third frame of the nightcap. After surrendering four runs during a stretch when six consecutive Padres reached base, Darvish trudged into the dugout midway through a 7-2 loss.
A month ago, when the Dodgers acquired Darvish from Texas minutes before the July 31 trade deadline, the trade elicited exhilaration among his new teammates. Now the group gave him space. Clayton Kershaw patted Darvish on the back as he disappeared into the clubhouse.
The excitement about Darvish’s arrival has been overtaken by confusion about his performance. He has thrown so many bullpen sessions that his manager cannot keep track of his schedule. The extra work is not superfluous. Under pitching coach Rick Honeycutt’s guidance, Darvish has been reshaping his mechanics to resemble the delivery he utilized before undergoing elbow reconstruction in 2015.
The process has not been seamless as Darvish gave up five runs in three innings in the evening. Earlier in the day, the Dodgers were defeated 6-5 when Pedro Baez served up a walk-off homer to Padres shortstop Yangervis Solarte. Concern about Darvish, though, will linger beyond Saturday. His earned-run average after five starts as a Dodger rose to 4.50.
“Yu will admit that he hasn’t thrown the way he’s going to throw for us,” Roberts said before the game.
Roberts rolled out a lineup for the first game that belonged in the Cactus League. O’Koyea Dickson made his big-league debut. in left field. Alex Verdugo, a 21-year-old rookie, started in center for the second game in a row. Rob Segedin replaced Justin Turner at third base. Enrique Hernandez started at shortstop and batted third.
The Dodgers still surged to an early lead. Cody Bellinger broke a tie in the fourth inning with a solo home run off Padres pitcher Clayton Richard. It was Bellinger’s 35th homer of the season, which tied Mike Piazza for the franchise record for a rookie. Bellinger had not homered since Aug. 12, a drought extended by his recent stint on the 10-day disabled list because of a sprained ankle.
“I’m just trying to keep going with it, enjoying it as much as I can,” Bellinger said. “And doing what I can help to win, as well.”
The expanded roster offered Roberts a slew of understudies to use. Brock Stewart started the game, ran up his pitch count with four walks and exited after four innings of one-run baseball. Wilmer Font, Stewart’s replacement on the mound, gave up two runs in the sixth in his first big-league outings since 2013. Josh Ravin yielded two more in the seventh.
Turner came off the bench in the ninth to tie the score by crushing a hanging slider from Padres All-Star Brad Hand for a two-run homer. The deadlock only lasted two batters in the bottom of the ninth. Baez threw a belt-high 96-mph fastball to Solarte, who powered it over the right-field fence. Despite a 1.94 earned-run average, Baez’s peripheral numbers are troubling, and the team will likely lean on Brandon Morrow as Kenley Jansen’s primary set-up man.
“The confidence for him hasn’t wavered,” Roberts said. “We’ve just got to work through some things.”
The events of the nightcap carried more weight than the day game. For Darvish, the transition to Los Angeles has not been seamless. He struck out 10 Mets in his Dodgers debut, and struck out 10 more against Arizona in his next outing.
On Aug. 16, though, in an odd outing against the White Sox, Darvish struck out a career-low two batters and felt his back tighten up during the game. The Dodgers placed him on the 10-day disabled list.
During his time off, Darvish tinkered with his delivery. Honeycutt had studied video of Darvish’s tenure with the Rangers. He noticed how Darvish’s arm slot had become more elevated after he returned from Tommy John surgery in 2016. The alteration defanged his slider, which many scouts consider the most effective of his offspeed pitches.
“It’s not something that I came up with, changing mechanics,” Darvish said. “It came from the team. And I agreed with them, to work on it. If it came from me, that means I’m probably over-thinking it. But it came from them, and I agree with them.”
Honeycutt suggested Darvish lower his elbow, which would create a better angle on the slider. Darvish shifted closer to the third-base side of the rubber. In his first game back from the disabled list, Darvish struck out seven Brewers on Aug. 27. But he lasted only five innings and gave up three runs. He was inefficient and permitted six hits.
Darvish described the process as a rebuilding of muscle memory. There is a “gap between what I’m thinking and what I’m doing on the mound,” he explained.
“Let me give you an example: Sometimes I step too much to the third-base side, but in my mind, I’m stepping toward home, the first-base side,” Darvish said. “Those are the things I’m talking about.”
He added, “Say you think you’re walking straight, but you actually aren’t. When you’re trying to fix it, that’s frustrating, right? It’s the same thing.”
If he made progress on Saturday, it was not reflected in his statistics. The game did not start well for Darvish. He hung a first-inning slider to shortstop Erick Aybar, who hit a double on a line drive that Verdugo dove for and missed. Aybar scored two batters later on a groundout.
The third inning was a mess. A one-run lead evaporated when San Diego second baseman Carlos Asuaje hit a 96-mph fastball over the fence in right. Darvish surrendered three singles in a row, including an infield hit for Aybar when Darvish missed the bag while covering first base and an RBI knock for first baseman Hector Sanchez. After walking outfielder Jabari Blash, Darvish watched outfielder Matt Szczur stroke a two-run double down the first-base line.
Darvish returned for the fourth but he did not stay long. He walked Asuaje. After a single by Aybar, Roberts ended Darvish’s evening. Afterward, he managed to find a positive tone.
“I told Yu after to keep his confidence,” Roberts said. “He’s working through some things. … There were a lot of groundballs that found holes. The curveball was up a little bit. The fastball didn’t get located some times. But we’re trending the right way. I know the line score doesn’t seem that way. But the most important thing for me is for him to go out there and continue to compete.”