The pitcher the Texas Rangers want Yu Darvish to be is the pitcher he was Sunday afternoon at Tropicana Field.
He threw strikes. Lots of them.
He struck batters out. Just not as many of them.
A higher percentage of his pitches (73 percent) found the strike zone than in any of his previous career starts.
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It was a winning formula, but not until Elvis Andrus stepped to the plate with two outs in the eighth.
Darvish scattered seven hits in seven scoreless innings, and Andrus lined a two-out homer to left field to break a scoreless tie and lift the Rangers to a 3-0 victory over Tampa Bay.
Alexi Ogando, Neal Cotts and Joakim Soria combined on the final six outs to prevent a three-game sweep at Tropicana Field. But a new-look and relatively fastball-happy Darvish was what the Rangers needed.
“If I can have three weeks off between starts, I could pitch like this every time,” Darvish said. “It seems like they are very aggressive so I tried not to overthrow and be very careful with my command. That was the key to my success. I was aggressive throwing strikes.
“I felt like I was pitching in spring training or any other game. I didn’t feel anything unusual.”
Andrus said it was good to have Darvish back.
“Every time he throws that way, I know it’s going to be a good game,” Andrus said. “He’s got too many pitches, and every time he pounds the strike zone with the fastball and gets one and two strikes, he’s going to be a tough guy to hit.”
Darvish, who hadn’t faced hitters since March 16 because of neck stiffness, wasn’t nearly as dominant as he was in his first start last season, a near perfect game against Houston. He allowed a hit in all seven of his innings, but he impressed nonetheless.
He also became the fastest among starting pitchers in big-league history to reach 500 career strikeouts, doing so in 401 2/3 innings to eclipse the mark of 404 2/3 innings by former Grand Prairie High star Kerry Wood.
Darvish had five of his six strikeouts in the first two innings, but the right-hander needed only 25 pitches, 22 of them strikes, to record the first six outs. After three innings, he had thrown only eight balls in 39 pitches.
He threw 89 pitches, 65 for strikes.
“It was pretty good, and that was because he was ahead of hitters,” manager Ron Washington said. “I think you’ll see many Yu Darvishes. You’ll see a Yu Darvish who may throw 103 in seven innings and get the same results. He threw the ball very well for not seeing hitters in three weeks.”
But Darvish did some of his best pitching when the Rays moved runners into scoring position.
He wiggled free in the third after David DeJesus moved to second on a wild pitch, getting Wil Myers to pop up to first base and striking out Ben Zobrist.
The Rays threatened in the fifth, which started with Darvish’s first walk of the game to Ryan Hanigan. DeJesus doubled two batters later to put runners at second and third with one out.
Darvish, though, again got Myers to pop up to first base and Zobrist to fly out to left field to keep the game scoreless.
In the sixth, Evan Longoria opened with a double, but Darvish got the next three Rays and stranded Longoria at third.
Hanigan started the seventh with a double to left, but Darvish escaped again when he just beat Myers to the bag on a chopper to first base.
That left the Rays 0 of 11 with runners in scoring position.
“We had a good game plan, and we executed it,” catcher J.P. Arencibia said. “A man on second and nobody out is a tough situation. He made pitches and pitched out of it.”
The Rangers, though, couldn’t solve Rays righty Alex Cobb, who retired the first eight batters he faced and allowed only three singles and a walk in seven innings.
Donnie Murphy singled with one out in the fifth and got to second base, but Arencibia bounced out to third in the Rangers’ lone at-bat against Cobb with a runner in scoring position.
The Rangers finally broke through in the eighth after Joel Peralta had mowed down Leonys Martin and Arencibia. Shin-Soo Choo reached on a hopper to the mound that caromed off Peralta’s glove, and Andrus roped a 3-2 pitch into the seats.
“He’s going to hit five a year, and today was one of the five,” Washington said. “It was huge.”