HOUSTON -- He walked a line between artist and heavyweight fighter, painting the corners when he had to before delivering a knockout blow. The Astros had no answer for anything Yu Darvish threw at them Tuesday night and nearly wound up on the wrong side of history.
Darvish was one out away from pitching a perfect game when Marwin Gonzalez swung at the first pitch he saw in the bottom of the ninth and shot a clean single up the middle, through Darvish's legs, shocking the Minute Maid Park crowd that was on its feet in anticipation of history.
The 7-0 loss to the Rangers almost felt like a victory to the Astros, who were on the wrong end of a Matt Cain perfect game less than a year ago. Darvish tied a Minute Maid Park record with 14 strikeouts, but the Astros were relieved to avoid a perfect game.
"We didn't want to lose like that, and I'm grateful I got the hit and he didn't get a perfect game," said Gonzalez, who was in the lineup last June when Cain threw baseball's 22nd perfect game against the Astros.
Darvish was pulled after giving up the hit to Gonzalez on his 111th pitch of the night, and Jose Altuve followed with another single, meaning the Rangers had to settle for a combined two-hit shutout of their new American League West rivals.
"When he's throwing a perfect game, you want to let him get through it," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "If he had walked a guy or given up a hit, he was coming out. I'm glad it was a hit. If it was a walk, there would be darts in my back."
Darvish could only smile following Gonzalez's hit.
"I think my teammates were a little more disappointed than I am," he said. "Even if I got the [perfect] game, it doesn't translate to three to five wins. It's still just one win. I think my teammates were more disappointed than me."
Astros manager Bo Porter said the hitters tried to slow down Darvish's quick pace. Houston has struck out 28 times in the first two games of the season.
"We tried a couple of different things," he said. "There are some different adjustments we'll make the second time we'll face him. I'm not going to talk about those here in the postgame, but he was pretty good tonight, and it was more about him than it was about us. With the stuff he was featuring tonight, he would have went through a lot of big league lineups."
Darvish struck out five of the first six batters he faced and wound up striking out the side in the second and fourth innings. The crowd of 22,673 was on its feet when Darvish started the ninth by getting Jason Castro and Carlos Corporan to ground out on only three pitches. Gonzalez took notice.
"The first two batters, J.C. and Corporan, he threw a fastball away the first pitch to them, and I realized he was going to throw it to me, too, and I was waiting on the pitch," he said.
Gonzalez struck it cleanly and firmly, shooting it through Darvish and into the outfield for one of the few balls the Astros hit to the outfield all night.
"He was throwing a lot of strikes," first baseman Carlos Pena said. "At first, when I saw him get to deep counts early in the game, I'm like, 'OK, we're making him throw a lot of pitches.' Then he seems to settle down and get into a nice little rhythm and he was throwing six different speeds, six different pitches."
Considering the Astros were trailing, 1-0, through six innings, the thought of a perfect game didn't cross their minds until the Rangers pushed across two in the seventh, two in the eighth and two more in the ninth against Houston's bullpen.
"You're not too worried about when you see the zero in the hit column," said third baseman Brett Wallace, who went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts. "It's not about that at that point. It's more, 'We're down 1-zip and we need to get a baserunner and get him over and drive him in and get back in the ballgame.' As the game moved on, you could hear it in the stands. You could hear the environment get a little bit different. "
Astros starter Lucas Harrell pitched well in defeat, holding the Rangers to six hits and one run in six innings in his first start of the season. Lance Berkman's RBI single in the third inning was the only run against Harrell, who began swift 1-6-3 double plays to end the fourth and sixth innings.
"Lucas was outstanding," Porter said. "Even the time he got into jams, he was able to make pitches to make the double play to get out of them. It's tough to go six solid innings and give up one run the way he did tonight and end up taking a loss, but the guy on the other side of the field did a tremendous job."
Prior to the game, a member of the Japanese media asked Porter about Darvish, and the first-year manager simply responded, "He's real good." He was asked postgame about that comment.
"I'm not psychic," Porter said. "He is real good, and I think he pretty much displayed that tonight."
Pena was proud of the way his teammates battled to the end.
"We're not going to say die," he said. "We're going to keep on coming. Baseball's crazy. You never know what could happen. You can't fold your tent. Even though it might look impossible, it really never is. We kept coming and got some good swings at the end, and hopefully, we can build on it tomorrow."