LOS ANGELES -- Dodger Stadium doesn't provide the best of memories for Chicago Cubs starter Yu Darvish, who'll try to exorcise more than one demon when he takes the mound there on Saturday night against his old team.
In 2017, Darvish helped theLos Angeles Dodgersget to the World Series before famously melting down over the course of two starts in the best-of-seven affair against the Houston Astros -- including Game 7, in which he lasted just 1 innings while giving up four runs in a 5-1 loss.
"It's a big deal," Darvish said Friday of his return for the first time since Game 7. "I still have a lot of friends over there, but at the same time they are the best team in the National League. I have to beat those guys."
The Cubs have dropped the first two games of the four-game series in L.A., including a 5-3 loss Friday night.
Darvish actually took the mound last season at Dodger Stadium, but it was only in the bullpen. He was rehabbing an elbow injury, and after a short throwing session, he was essentially shut down for the season. The Cubs' biggest offseason signing made a total of eight starts in the first season of a six-year, $126 million deal.
"Last year when I came here, that was the worst day of my life," Darvish said. "F---ing pain. This year I've been feeling good. My fastball [Friday] was maybe my best bullpen this year."
Darvish has been backing up how he feels lately, as he has found some control with his fastball after a shaky start to the season. He didn't walk a batter in his last outing and has just 11 over his past six after issuing 33 in his first eight starts. Physically, he's doing great, but how he handles the return to Dodger Stadium is anyone's guess.
"He'll admit to the fact there are going to be hurdles to get over," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said. "I get that, but he's been better at putting things in the rearview mirror recently."
His old manager said similar. Dodger skipper Dave Roberts was quick to remind people Darvish had dominant performances en route to the World Series. In fact, one came against the Cubs.
"I thought he had some really good moments with us, and people want to rest on Game 7 a lot, which was unfortunate, obviously, for all of us," Roberts said. "But whether it's certain things that he has to get past coming to Dodger Stadium -- I'm not sure what's in his mind."
It's a good question. What is on Darvish's mind? It's been 591 days since Game 7. How far in the rearview mirror is it really?
"Last year it was still in my head, but this year it's not," Darvish said. "My mind is changed a little bit. I have to learn from that. That's my motivation right now."
In other words, he's trying to move on, but admitting it's a big game Saturday opens the door for people to judge whether he'll rise to the occasion for it. Maddon believes differently.
"I think even more significant is how well he pitched at Wrigley," he said. "He faced Jake [Arrieta] and overcame that. I think he's going to come out here with a different mindset. I think a lot of that is going to be in the rearview mirror. I really do."
Often, the question with Darvish is if he's too aware of his surroundings. The other side of calling it a big game Saturday would be to dismiss it as just another one on the schedule. That can be a winning tactic as well.
"I just think he cares," his former Dodgers catcher Austin Barnes said. "He's very aware of the environment around him. I really enjoyed catching him. We had a good relationship.
"It was unfortunate what happened in Game 7."
All roads eventually lead back to that fateful night, when Darvish was reportedly tipping his pitches, leading to five runs in the first two innings for the Astros. They also could lead to a not-so-pleasant reception by the home crowd.
"I don't want him to get booed, but fans, they can make their own decisions," Roberts said.
Since that night against the Astros, Darvish has had an injury-filled year, followed by a command-issue start to this one. But things are improving. The feeling is, with health and command of his stuff, confidence will follow. A win over his old team, in the park where he was at his worst, could do the trick.
"I'm close to being around in the seventh inning or later in every game," Darvish said. "I'm really close."
Darvish: Return to Dodger Stadium is 'a big deal'