One start, even as impressive as it was, is not enough of a sampling to determine if Martin Perez has figured out how to pitch in the major leagues.
But he did something Saturday night that suggests he has taken a step in his evolution from top-rated pitching prospect to mainstay in the Texas Rangers’ rotation.
For the first time in his brief career, Perez controlled a game. He was confident. He was in control. He never backed down.
His performance lifted the Rangers to a 4-2 victory against a St. Louis Cardinals team with the best record in baseball. Perez allowed two runs in seven strong innings and posted scoreless frames in his final five to earn his second big-league win.
With Seattle's 7-5 victory over Oakland later Saturday night, the Rangers recaptured first place in the AL West by .002 percentage points.
A.J. Pierzynski and Nelson Cruz hit two-run homers in the second and third innings off Shelby Miller, but their continued hot streaks at the plate and even the fact that the Rangers are riding a four-game winning streak were overshadowed by the work Perez did at Busch Stadium.
“The stuff, I’ve always seen the stuff,” manager Ron Washington said. “But tonight was the first time that I think he showed that he’s a big-league pitcher where he was thinking about what his next pitch was going to be and what he was going to do with it.
“It could be a huge step. He just beat a pretty good team. Those guys know how to have at-bats and they know how do it in the clutch, and he was able to settle them down.”
The effort by Perez (1-1) was the finest in his brief career. After allowing single runs in the first and second innings, he allowed only two more hits and his lone walk.
He needed only 82 pitches to finish seven innings.
“It’s amazing, man,” said Perez, who was recalled earlier in the day from Triple A Round Rock. “I just thought I needed to win this game and I needed to do the same job I did in Triple A. I didn’t put pressure on myself, and I threw what A.J. called.”
St. Louis managed only five hits against Perez, and four of those were singles. Two came in the first as the Cardinals took a 1-0 lead, and David Freese started the second with a triple and scored on a sacrifice fly by Shane Robinson to tie it at 2-2.
Pierzynski homered in the second after Adrian Beltre had opened with a double, and Cruz connected an inning later with Ian Kinsler aboard. It turned out that was all Perez needed.
The Cardinals’ only other threat against him came with two outs in the fifth after a Freese single and a walk to Robinson. Perez got Pete Kozma to fly out to left field, the first of 10 straight outs to end his night.
“The first two innings I missed a couple pitches,” said Perez, who was making his second start of the season. “But after that, after the guys made their run, I said this is my game and I have to trust in myself and do the best I can.”
Perez, 22, was at his best against the best hitter in the National League. Yadier Molina, who entered hitting .364, went 0 for 3 and struck out twice on changeups in the first and the sixth.
While Washington was impressed with Perez’s mound presence, Pierzynski loved Perez’s changeup.
“He got a lot of big outs with it,” Pierzynski said. “If you’re left-handed and can throw a changeup, you can pitch a long time.”
The Rangers chased Miller, from Brownwood, after 5 2/3 innings after his throw on a Perez bunt attempt pulled Allen Craig off the bag at first. Miller (8-5) left an impression on the Rangers.
“Basically he made two mistakes, and we hit two home runs on them,” Pierzynski said.
The Cardinals had one last threat in them after Perez was removed. Former TCU star Matt Carpenter and Carlos Beltran collected one-out singles in the eighth against Tanner Scheppers to put runners at first and third, but Matt Holliday bounced into a double play.
Joe Nathan was perfect in the ninth to give Perez the win. Unlike after his first start, May 28 at Arizona, Perez will be sticking around for a while after looking like a major-league pitcher for the first time in his career.
“I have the ball, and they have the bat,” Perez said. “If I throw the ball where I want, they don’t have a chance. I have to think I’m the best and I have to win the game and do the best job I can do. Some days you’ll have really good games. You have to work with your mind and try to continue.”