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Astros Stunned by Yu

Denied! Yu Darvish near perfect game gives Rangers a World Series worthy jolt, but Astros fight shows

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Lance Berkman Rangers
Lance Berkman was a thorn in the Astros side. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CultureMapSNAP.com
Jose Altuve Astros
The Astros made some sparkling defensive plays, including a beauty by second baseman Jose Altuve. Photo by © Michelle Watson/CultureMapSNAP.com
Yu Darvish road
Lance Berkman Rangers
Jose Altuve Astros
News_Chris Baldwin_managing editor_arms crossed

Yu Darvish throws his arms up in the air and smiles as a knock from a career .234 hitter screams into center field. Done in by a lightweight.

Maybe, done in by the Houston Astros' surprising fight under new manager Bo Porter too.

This is how perfection ends. With two outs in the ninth inning. One out away from 27 up and 27 down — and the 24th perfect game in Major League Baseball history. Marwin Gonzalez, the Astros No. 9 hitter, somehow prevents what looks like the inevitable. The no-name stops the Astros from being the victims of a perfect game for the second time in less than a year.

Yu close. Yu far.

"That was impossible to catch," Darvish says later of Gonzalez's single that went rocketing by the pitcher and into the hole between second base and shortstop to squelch baseball history.

Darvish does not seem upset though. He is talking in a Rangers press conference hurriedly set up in the Astros press room. He smiles on the mound shortly after giving up that hit after 26 straight outs. And he will not lament anything now either.

"No," he says through his translator Kenji Nimura when asked if he's disappointed. "I'm really satisfied." So what's he thinking at the moment perfection ends?

"That I can now go to the dugout," he says.  

The Texas Rangers' ace is lifted after 111 pitches. With one measly single marring his 14-strikeout masterpiece in which only two balls even reach the outfield. including the last one on the ground from Gonzalez. The Rangers will go on to wrap up a 7-0 win, but this Darvish performance is much bigger than that for them.

When Rangers fans shout out "Yu!" after strikeouts, it comes off as a soft sound. There is nothing soft about Darvish's game though — or his darting, careening, spinning pitches have enough movement to be driven by a Hollywood stunt man.

The Texas Rangers need Yu Darvish to be a near Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw. On this night, he's somehow even better. He outdoes Verlander and Kershaw's Opening Day heroics, forever ups the bar for himself and these Josh Hamilton-less Rangers.

"He just dominated," Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler says.

If Darvish pitches at anywhere close to this level on a consistent basis, the Rangers might have a World Series chance after all. The Astros? They may be in the American League now, but they're not in Darvish's league. That Cy Young that Rangers manager Ron Washington said Darvish could win this season doesn't look at all farfetched now.

"I guess it leaves something for him to work on now," Kinsler cracks of the near perfecto. "He can do it one out better."

Perfect Buildup

San Francisco Giants ace Matt Cain struck out 14 Astros in his perfect game on June 13 last season. That feat is already hanging in the air under the closed roof of Minute Maid Park less than 90 minutes into Houston's second game of the season.

 One pitch is so nasty — and darting — that Ankiel cannot help but wave at it as plummets to the dirt. There are house flies that cannot change direction this quick. 

It's startling how quickly the question turns from not when the Astros will get a hit against Darvish, but if they ever will.

Darvish strikes out five of the first six batters he faces. One pitch is so nasty — and darting — that Rick Ankiel cannot help but wave at it as plummets to the dirt. There are house flies that cannot change direction this quick.

At the start of the game, Darvish is throwing near 90. By the time he strikes out Justin Maxwell — the Astros' Opening Night ESPN hero — to end the second, he's up into the high 90s.

By the end of the fourth inning, Darvish has nine strikeouts — and still nothing close to a hit against. When the Astros struck only once in the fifth inning, and actually hit a ball hard (Chris Carter's drive to deep left), it's almost a moral victory.

Still Darvish has his ninth 10-strikeout game of his short (30-start) Major League career by the time the fifth inning is done.

Astros Whiff City

The Astros continue to play guts-out defense under Porter. If it's not second baseman Jose Altuve diving into the hole and throwing out Mitch Moreland from almost his back, it's center fielder Justin Maxwell making a catch as he bounces against the wall, just below Tal's Hill to rob Nelson Cruz.

The Rangers must already be more than sick of Maxwell. He's made three great catches and the season's only two games old. And oh yeah, they still could see him 17 more times in this new rivalry.

Then again, Maxwell will not haunt the Rangers dreams like Darvish does Astro nights. Again, whole different league, whole different level.

 The Texas manager is not exactly what you'd call a creative thinker — and Darvish is more of a tinkering scientist than a snarling bulldog.  

There are at least 17 reporters here just to cover Darvish. There likely won't be 17 reporters covering the entire Astros roster in a few weeks.

Those on the Darvish beat line up along the third base line, waiting for a glimpse of him on his pitching days. Darvish lives in a different world than most Major League Baseball players, even really good ones. Everything is magnified.

The Rangers manager says that "Everything is up to Darvish." Washington insists that the guy who couldn't even get Texas' Opening Day nod can win the Cy. But it's clear Darvish also sometimes drives Washington completely batty.

The Texas manager is not exactly what you'd call a creative thinker — and Darvish is more of a tinkering scientist than a snarling bulldog.

"The guy's got 29 pitches and sometimes he goes out there and tries to throw 29 pitches," Washington says earlier in the week.

Washington should probably just shut up and be happy to have Yu. Darvish offers the hope of a legit dominating ace, that for all their recent success, the Rangers haven't had in this run.

They've had starters who've put up good numbers — including one who turned that into a big contract in Anaheim. But they've never had any mystique and aura on the mound. Darvish brings that. It's a show every time he pitches.

Of course, there's a show and there's this.

This is pure dominant hope, a statement bigger than a $123 million signing. It's just not quite perfect.

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