HOUSTON - Yu Darvish literally came within inches of perfection.
Darvish was one out from a perfect game when Marwin Gonzalez grounded a clean single through the pitcher's legs, and Texas beat the Houston Astros 7-0 on Tuesday night.
A screen shot of the play showed the ball sail what looked to be less than a foot below the pitcher's glove and into the outfield.
"That was impossible to catch," Darvish said through a translator.
The celebrated right-hander from Japan struck out a career-high 14 and was in complete control before Gonzalez smacked the first pitch he saw up the middle. Darvish was unable to get his glove down in time and the ball skittered into centre field well beyond a desperate dive by shortstop Elvis Andrus.
At that moment, one thought went through Darvish's mind.
"I can now go back to the dugout," he deadpanned. "Even if I got the complete game today, it's not going to translate to three or five wins. It's a win. A win's a win."
Darvish smiled and put up his hands — as if to say, "Oh well, it happens." Texas' infielders quickly came to the mound, and manager Ron Washington joined them.
"I didn't want to be the last out," Gonzalez said. "I was trying to look for a good pitch to hit and put it in play. That's all I was thinking."
Washington patted Darvish on the chest and then signalled for a reliever. A crowd of 22,673 that included plenty of Rangers fans cheered Darvish as he walked off after 111 pitches. He stopped and tipped his cap before getting high-fives from teammates in the dugout. He sat on the bench to watch the rest of the game then joined the handshake line after the final out.
And if Darvish was upset about coming oh so close, he didn't show it.
"I went that far," he said. "I'm really satisfied."
Working from the stretch throughout — even though he never needed to — Darvish became the first pitcher to lose a perfect game with two outs in the ninth inning since Armando Galarraga on June 2, 2010. Of course, the Detroit pitcher was denied only because of an infamous missed call at first base by umpire Jim Joyce, who later admitted he blew the play.
On the second full day of the major league season, Darvish nearly picked up right where baseball left off last year, when there were a record three perfect games, thrown by Philip Humber, Matt Cain and Felix Hernandez.
"He threw all seven of his pitches in, out, up, down and every way you could throw a ball tonight," said Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who caught Humber's perfect game for the White Sox last season. "You get to that point and you start thinking it's going to happen, but it just wasn't meant to be."
Darvish's 14 strikeouts matched a Minute Maid Park record and were the most by a Rangers pitcher since Hall of Famer and current team CEO Nolan Ryan had 14 in July 1991 against the Angels.
Darvish arrived in the majors last year with much fanfare, having already been a five-time All-Star and two-time MVP in Japan. The Rangers paid more than $107 million to get him for five seasons.
The 6-foot-5 righty quickly settled in with Texas, becoming an All-Star last year on the way to going 16-9 with 221 strikeouts. He also once flirted with perfection, retiring the first 17 batters at Kansas City on Sept. 3.
"I think I got lucky today. I felt I pitched better against the Royals last year," Darvish said. "I had better command in that outing."
If he had been able to finish the job Tuesday, it would have been the earliest perfecto in history.
Darvish didn't really need a dazzling play from his defence as he shut down the Astros and chased the 24th perfect game in big league history — including the one Don Larsen tossed in the 1956 World Series, and two in 1880.
Andrus was disappointed he couldn't get to Gonzalez's single.
"He hit the ball really good right up the middle," Andrus said. "I tried really hard to get to it. I think I dove and it was like 10 feet from me. I was praying that at least his glove would touch it and slow it down, but he hit it pretty hard."
It was almost the second time in 10 months the overmatched Astros failed to put a runner on base. Cain's perfect game for the World Series champion San Francisco Giants came against Houston on June 13 last year.
Many expect the Astros to be the worst team in the majors this year, after two straight 100-loss seasons and a major league-low payroll under $22 million. But they cruised to an 8-2 win over Texas in the major league opener and their American League debut Sunday night.
The 26-year-old Darvish carried over a strong showing in spring training this year into near perfection in his first regular-season start. The Astros looked totally lost against him, often taking wild swings at breaking balls that bounced.
With the crowd on its feet and a mixture of cheers and "Yuuus" filling Minute Maid Park, Chris Carter took Darvish to a full count before striking out on the ninth pitch of the at-bat for the first out of the eighth inning.
Rick Ankiel followed by striking out and Justin Maxwell hit an easy grounder to second baseman Ian Kinsler.
Darvish looked toward the sky for a couple of seconds before retreating to the dugout.
He began the ninth by getting two easy groundouts before Gonzalez ruined his bid. The 24-year-old Gonzalez made his big league debut last year, hitting .234 in 80 games for Houston.
Darvish, who played seven professional seasons in Japan before joining the Rangers, set rookie franchise records for wins and strikeouts last season. He finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting behind winner Mike Trout and Oakland outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.
The win gives Darvish five straight regular-season victories dating to last season. He took the loss in the Rangers' 5-1 loss to Baltimore in the AL wild-card game.
Using his dizzying array of pitches, including a fastball that topped out at 97 mph, a slider, and 95 mph cutters, Darvish bedeviled the mostly inexperienced Houston hitters.
Darvish (1-0) sailed through the first four innings, striking out nine, including the side in the second and fourth.
Carter hit a long fly that looked as though it could be gone before David Murphy caught it just in front of the left-centre wall for the first out of the fifth.
"I really thought it was a home run," Darvish said.
Michael Kirkman relieved Darvish after Gonzalez's hit. Jose Altuve followed with a single before Kirkman fanned pinch-hitter J.D. Martinez to end it.
Darvish has never thrown a complete game in the majors.
Lucas Harrell (0-1) allowed six hits and one run with four strikeouts in six innings for Houston.
Lance Berkman had a run-scoring single in the third against his former team. Kinsler hit a two-run homer off Rhiner Cruz in the seventh to make it 3-0. Texas added two runs in the eighth and two in the ninth.
NOTES: The last no-hitter by a Rangers pitcher was Kenny Rogers' perfect game against the Angels on July 28, 1994. ... These teams wrap up the series Wednesday when Humber makes his Astros debut against Texas RHP Alexi Ogando.