ST. PETERSBURG -- Yu Darvish has a suggestion on how the Rangers should use him this year.
"If I can have three weeks off between starts, I could pitch like this every time." Darvish said.
The Rangers don't want to wait that long. They want to see this like every fifth day from now until sometime in October. Darvish was that good on a Sunday afternoon when he emerged triumphant in a tremendous pitching duel against Rays starter Alex Cobb.
Neither gave up a run in seven innings. The Rangers finally broke through on a two-out, two-run home run by Elvis Andrus in the top of the eighth inning off of reliever Joel Peralta and the bullpen made Darvish's work stand up with a 3-0 victory over the Rays at Tropicana Field.
"Fantastic job," catcher J.P. Arencibia said. "We had a good game plan and he executed it well. He just really executed well today."
Darvish, who started the season on the disabled list with stiffness in his neck and hadn't pitched since March 16, was activated before the game and looked like he had never been away. He allowed seven hits, walked one and struck out six. He also continually pitched out of jams, holding the Rays hitless in 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position through seven.
"It seems like they are very aggressive, so I tried not to overthrow and be very careful with my command," Darvish said. "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."
Cobb was just as good, if not better. Keeping the Rangers off-balance with his split-finger changeup, he allowed just three hits and one walk while striking out six. The Rangers had just one at-bat with a runner in scoring position against him.
"He was especially tough," Andrus said. "He didn't give up anything. He was painting the whole game. I'm glad we had Yu doing the same for us."
The win allowed the Rangers to avoid getting swept by the Rays and they are 3-3 on the season going into their three-game series with the Red Sox that starts on Monday at Fenway Park.
"Cobb is a good pitcher," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "They have good pitchers over there. Today it was the first one to break and we didn't break. It was a well-pitched game on both sides. We were just fortunate to break through."
Both pitchers were done after seven. Darvish threw only 89 pitches, but the last three innings were stressful.
In the fifth, Darvish walked Ryan Hanigan to lead off the inning and he went to third on a one-out double by David DeJesus. Darvish also allowed leadoff doubles to Evan Longoria in the sixth and Ryan Hanigan in the seventh. But the Rays failed to score, going 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position over those three innings.
"J.P. Arencibia was instrumental in getting Darvish through those innings," Washington said. "He put down the right pitches in the right situation. They were in sync."
But Washington felt Darvish had done enough for his first start of the season.
"If we were a little deeper in the season and he had some innings under his belt, he might have pitched eight or even nine," Washington said. "He hadn't pitch in three weeks and he got us through it."
Cobb didn't seem to have any stressful situations, but manager Joe Maddon decided to go to his bullpen in the eighth inning.
"Both guys were outstanding," Maddon said. "Cobb was really, really good. His mixture of pitches was much, much better today. Knowing how competitive he is, I know he wanted to outpitch [Darvish] today."
Instead they fought to a draw and the game became a battle of the bullpens. Peralta took over in the eighth inning and retired the first two hitters. Then Shin-Soo Choo beat out an infield hit to bring up Andrus.
Andrus got ahead 3-1, fouled off a pitch and then crushed a 3-2 fastball into the left-field seats to put the Rangers ahead.
"I was trying to stay short with my swing in that at-bat," Andrus said. "The 3-1 pitch, I was a little long. I knew he was going to try and get me. Especially when you have a guy like Prince [Fielder] behind me, it's going to be tough to get crazy and sneak a changeup or a breaking pitch, so I was trying to stay short on that one. I saw the fastball up and in, stayed short and put a good swing on it."
Alexi Ogando took over in the eighth and allowed a leadoff single to Ben Zobrist. He retired the next two hitters before walking Desmond Jennings. Washington then brought in Neal Cotts and he struck out Matt Joyce to end the threat. The Rays were 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position. The Rangers added an unearned run in the ninth and Joakim Soria retired the Rays in order for his first save. It also closed out the Rangers first shutout of the season.
"You've accomplished something when you've shut that team down," Washington said.
The Rangers aren't eager to wait three weeks for it to happen again.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.