Dominant Darvish denied perfection by one out

HOUSTON — Maybe it’s a good thing Yu Darvish’s start Tuesday night ended the way it did.

If he would have thrown a perfect game in the first start of a season with already sky-high expectations for the right-hander, he would have had nowhere to go but down the rest of the way.

But he was oh so close.

Darvish had a perfect game with two outs in the ninth inning against Houston, only to have it spoiled when Marwin Gonzalez hit the first pitch he saw back up the middle for a clean single in a 7-0 Texas victory.

The 91-mph fastball away was the 111th and final pitch Darvish threw as Michael Kirkman relieved him and completed the shutout.

Darvish struck out 14, becoming the first Rangers’ pitcher to reach that number since Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan did it in 1991. He’s also the first Texas pitcher to have a no-hitter spoiled with two outs in the ninth and the first pitcher in the majors to lose a perfect game with two outs in the ninth since Detroit’s Armando Galarraga on June 2, 2010.

Despite his near miss, Darvish had no regrets about his outing.

“I went that far and I’m fully satisfied,” Darvish said through his translator.

So were his teammates and the rest of the 22,673 at a Minute Maid Park that had more Texas fans than Houston fans from the beginning and that number continued to grow as Darvish flirted with perfection.

“He was amazing,” Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz said. “He was throwing every pitch for strikes. It was like a video game.”

A video game with a near-perfect ending. Darvish started the ninth at 107 pitches and got two outs on three pitches before Gonzalez ended the bid with just the 49th hit of his big-league career.

The ball skipped past Darvish and into center.

“That was impossible to catch,” Darvish said of the lone hit.

Gonzalez was part of the Houston team last year that was on the losing end of a perfect game to San Francisco’s Matt Cain. He saw that Darvish started both Jason Castro and Carlos Corporan with fastballs to start the ninth and figured he’d get one too.

“I didn’t want to be the last out,” Gonzalez said. “I was trying to look for a good pitch to hit and put the ball in play. That’s all I was thinking in my mind.”

The Gonzalez single was one of the few balls the Astros hit that even had a chance of being a hit. The only ball to get out of the infield before the Gonzalez single was a long fly ball Chris Carter hit to open the fifth inning. Darvish thought that ball was a home run but it was run down by David Murphy.

He went to a full count on four batters but managed to avoid a walk for the first time in his 30 starts with the Rangers.

The only concern for Darvish Tuesday was his pitch count. He didn’t throw more than 78 in a game during the spring but he crossed the 100-pitch mark in the eighth inning. The Rangers had both Kirkman and Tanner Scheppers warming up in case Darvish ran into trouble. It didn’t happen until the ninth.

“I certainly would have liked to see him catch that ball that went up the middle but it didn’t happen so it wasn’t in the stars,” Texas manager Ron Washington said. “When the ball got through, my whole thought process was as soon as he gave up a hit I was taking him out. When he gave up a hit, I took him out of there. When you’re throwing the ball as well as he was throwing, you think he’s going to get it. As I said, it probably wasn’t meant to be.”

Darvish’s teammates started to feel like it was meant to be. Ian Kinsler, who had a two-run home run, played a tricky hop for the second out in the ninth inning. He said he briefly started thinking about the postgame celebration, but knew better.

“I’ve learned with time not to think this is it until it’s over,” Kinsler said. “You never take any out for granted in baseball. If any team’s not going to take an out for granted, it’s probably us (referring to Game 6 of the 2011 World Series).”

Darvish said he realized he had a perfect game going around the fifth inning because none of his teammates were sitting by him in the dugout. That was also about the same time the Astros realized they were in trouble too as Houston players started donning rally caps in a game that was 1-0 at the time.

But it wasn’t meant to be. At least not in his first start of the season.

“I guess this leaves him with some work to do,” Kinsler joked. “At least he has something to improve on.”