HOUSTON — All he knew when he showed up in Los Angeles over the summer was that Clayton Kershaw was on ice.
The Back Injury Heard 'Round Baseball was still reverberating throughout the game, and Yu Darvish was nervously coming to grips with the first trade of his career. The Texas Rangers, the only team he had ever known in the United States, had shipped him to the Dodgers.
"In the beginning, I was a little worried that people might be looking for a replacement for Clayton Kershaw," Darvish told Bleacher Report through a translator this week. "And those are big shoes to fill."
Three months later, on the grandest stage of his career, Darvish is in full exhale. The Dodgers never expected him to replace Kershaw, only support their ace left-hander. And as he prepares to make the first World Series start of his career Friday in Game 3, you might say Darvish is on a roll.
He is 2-0 with a 1.59 ERA in two starts this postseason. He fired five one-run innings in the National League Division Series clincher in Arizona. Then, he handcuffed the Chicago Cubs on six hits and one run over 6.1 innings in a Game 3 victory in the National League Championship Series.
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Now here he is, looking to pick up the Dodgers following their crushing 11-inning, 7-6 Game 2 loss. He still cannot believe he is participating in a World Series, telling Japanese reporters, "I cannot fathom the magnitude of this event." All the while his free-agent price tag this winter is increasing by the pitch.
"Whoever signs him, ownership feels good because he brings a buzz to the organization because the fans are excited," one American League executive tells B/R. "Everyone saw him on the big stage, so everybody's all-in, and it becomes very easy to overpay guys like that."
"Not everyone in an organization is an evaluator. Some [key decision-makers] are fans, too. That's why players who perform in October, it makes it easier to sign them."
Another executive believes Darvish will command a minimum of five years and $100 million this winter, and a third guesstimates the 31-year-old right-hander will wind up with a deal of somewhere between five and seven years at $20 million to $25 million per.
Before he gets to that, however, the Dodgers are counting on him to extend his run of postseason excellence and command the World Series Game 3 script against an Astros lineup featuring stars Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer that did significant damage the other night in Dodger Stadium.
In his fifth year in the majors following seven starring seasons with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters in Japan, Darvish is in the right place at the right time for a number of reasons.
Chief among them is that he's reached a comfortable place in his own mind.
"After I came here, people were very welcoming, and they kind of let me do what I normally do, let me be who I am," he says. "That makes it much easier for me to fit in in this clubhouse."
It wasn't easy. Sure, his first start for Los Angeles was brilliant: seven shutout innings in New York in a 6-0 breeze over the Mets. But over his next five starts, he got knocked around pretty hard, surrendering a 6.94 ERA and causing many around the Dodgers to wonder what exactly they had traded for.
In retrospect, that was a time of experimentation for Darvish. Really, much of the past two summers have been touch-and-feel for him since he came back from Tommy John surgery early in the 2016 season.
He was 6-9 with a 4.01 ERA over 22 starts for Texas this season before the trade. He showed flashes of his old self but was unable to harness the old consistency. Then came the trade, and the adjustment not only to new teammates but, to a degree, to new ideas as well.
"It's not just about me pitching," Darvish says of that rocky five-start patch shortly after he joined the Dodgers. "It's about me communicating with my teammates. Obviously, I don't know about my catchers, and my catchers don't know about me. So, obviously, it takes time working it out to get to my problem, and then communicating with my catchers and my teammates.
"That's how I overcame the hard times. Those are the keys."
With so many pitches in his repertoire and because he is a thinker, Darvish has always been considered one of the more high-maintenance pitchers in the game. He throws a two-seam fastball, four-seam fastball, cut-fastball, curve, changeup, slider. Add in a few variations on those and it can feel like going to an amusement park. A different ride every 20 minutes.
"He has so many different weapons you can get enamored with," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt says.
Honeycutt looked at Darvish video pre-Tommy John surgery and post, searching for clues to help move him out of neutral. He and the right-hander agreed on one thing: Darvish's right shoulder was dipping too low in his delivery, allowing his left shoulder to raise too high, which was producing a diminishing effect on his changeup. So they smoothed out Darvish's delivery, raising his right shoulder a tick to make it closer to even with his left shoulder. This altered his arm slot, and his changeup improved.
When things got complicated for him, Honeycutt looked to simplify things, advising him to winnow his mix of pitches at certain times—concentrate on what's working in the moment, rather than searching for something that isn't—and also altering, at times, his rhythm on the mound.
Despite his stature in the game, Darvish was accepting of the advice and worked with the Dodgers. Even in the midst of his slump, he never lost faith.
"I can't imagine coming to a new organization in the middle of a pennant race and wanting to prove that you're the pitcher we traded for," Kershaw says. "And on the cusp of free agency, wanting to showcase your skills and at the same time wanting to tinker with things and change some things to make yourself even better. Yu's been amazing about that."
Upon his arrival, Darvish says, "People here were very welcoming and they kind of let me do what I normally do, let me be who I am. That makes it much easier to fit in."
It was a learning process for both sides. As Honeycutt says, "You don't know when you get someone from a different organization how much information was given to them."
The Dodgers are an analytics-heavy club that provides as much information—video, statistical—as any of its players wants. Darvish is an information seeker, Honeycutt says, and reached out not only to him but to the club's front office. Through this, his relationship with catchers Austin Barnes and Yasmani Grandal was being constructed.
"I want him to pitch with confidence and with the level of flexibility he wants," Honeycutt says. "And it's our job to help move the catchers in the direction he wants them to go."
What Kershaw noticed was that when he watched Darvish pitch, it was like he was thinking about things during games, like "about a release point and doing this with his arm and trying to feel it."
"All that stuff was awesome in between starts," Kershaw says. "But it's hard enough to get major league hitters out while you're thinking about mechanics.
"So all I told him was those four days [between starts] you tinker, you work on whatever you need to, but that fifth day you're out there, your stuff is so good. Just go compete."
Pure stuff has never been an issue for Darvish. When he was in his first big league camp with the Rangers in the spring of 2012, his father, Farsad, said Yu threw so hard as a young boy that his classmates in elementary school did what they could to avoid playing dodgeball with him.
"The kids would say it hurt" when he smoked them with the ball, Farsad said. "They didn't want to play with him."
Opponents on the baseball field throughout the years have felt much the same way, and when the Dodgers had a chance to acquire him this summer in talks that went right up to the last seconds of the deadline— literally—they moved. They also talked with Detroit about ace Justin Verlander, according to B/R sources, but they lined up with the Rangers.
"Having him go out and pitch so well obviously is fun to watch, but mostly because it's putting us in a better position to win a championship," Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers' president of baseball operations, says.
Darvish's newfound dominance in Los Angeles is one enormous reason why Kershaw finally is shaking off the flawed-to-a-degree narrative that he is not an October pitcher. With Darvish and a strong bullpen, the Dodgers have not had to risk overworking Kershaw by leaning on him too much.
In the past, when the Dodgers' rotation was spotty or their bullpen was weak, they started Kershaw in October on short rest or pitched him deeper into games than probably was fair to him. As Honeycutt says, "Too much was asked."
With Darvish, Rich Hill and Alex Wood in the rotation and Brandon Morrow, Kenta Maeda and closer Kenley Jansen in the bullpen, too much has not been asked of Kershaw. After throwing 100 pitches in Game 1 against Arizona, he hasn't even cracked 90 in his next three starts (87, 89 and 83). Perhaps not coincidentally, Kershaw is 3-0 this postseason, with a signature moment in Game 1 of the Series.
These are not the days of Kershaw and Zack Greinke, with the rest of the rotation filled out by empty jerseys.
And despite Wednesday's Game 2 stumble, the Dodgers are a long way from the time when they had no bridge between whoever started on a given night and Jansen.
"We all knew something was going to happen at the deadline, and getting Yu, with his reputation and his stuff, we were already feeling it," Dodgers starter Alex Wood says. "He has a good sense of humor and he's pretty laid-back. And he likes to dissect pitching. It's been fun having him."
Darvish is doing exactly what the Dodgers acquired him to do—dissecting both pitching and rival hitters—and both he and the team stand to benefit in a big way.
Perhaps it will lead to the Dodgers' first World Series title in 29 years, and maybe even to a long-term relationship.
"It's easy for me to say right now," Darvish says, eyes twinkling, "that if they offer me $500 million and five years, I can say OK."
Yeah, the guy sure does have a sense of humor.
Right now, he's hitting his spots with the best of 'em.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.