WASHINGTON -- Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche stepped into the batter's box, down 0-2 in the count against Rangers starter Yu Darvish with the game locked in a scoreless tie in the fourth inning. Darvish delivered a 59-mph curveball that froze LaRoche, who could do nothing but watch the brutally slow breaking ball tumble into the strike zone.
"I thought it was going off the backstop when he released it," LaRoche said.
It was one of 12 strikeouts on Sunday afternoon for Darvish, who dazzled in eight scoreless innings to lead the Rangers to a 2-0 victory over the Nationals in the series finale at Nationals Park. The performance put a swift conclusion to a two-game, 19-run offensive outburst from the Nats, who fell a game below .500 at 27-28.
Darvish, who missed his last start on Tuesday with neck stiffness, improves to 5-2 on the season with 2.08 ERA.
"There's a reason he's put up the numbers he has," LaRoche said. "He wasn't leaving anything over the middle of the plate. He was painting corners. We were just struggling to put the ball in play."
Nationals starter Tanner Roark was just as good as Darvish for six innings and held the Rangers scoreless, though he struggled to find his command in the game's early stages. Roark threw 42 pitches in his first two innings, but he emerged from both unscathed. After a seven-pitch third inning, the right-hander settled in and refocused.
"He was missing early with the fastball, but [he] found it," manager Matt Williams said. "Everything else works off of that. So he was able to go deeper in the game."
A bizarre play nearly gave the Rangers the lead in the top of the first inning. Shortstop Elvis Andrus reached on an infield hit with one out before right fielder Alex Rios singled to put runners on first and third. Third baseman Adrian Beltre followed and struck out. Then first baseman Donnie Murphy stepped to the plate, and that's when the trouble started.
Rios attempted to steal second, and Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos fired a throw despite the runner on third base. Second-base umpire Scott Barry originally ruled Rios safe, but seconds later called him out because Rios came off the bag while second baseman Danny Espinosa still had the tag applied.
In the meantime, Andrus ran home and scored before Rios was called out, or so the Rangers thought.
But both teams challenged the play. Williams argued that Andrus had not crossed home plate in time, while Rangers manager Ron Washington argued that Rios had in fact been safe at second base. After a two-minute, 45-second review, the umpires overturned the call at home and confirmed the call at second base, meaning the top of the first inning would end without any runs scored.
"I just wanted to make sure my eyes weren't deceiving me," Williams said.
Roark was brilliant through most of his outing, but made one mistake in the top of the seventh inning that ultimately cost the Nationals the game. Roark hung a changeup to center fielder Leonys Martin, who turned on the pitch and sent a line drive over the right-field wall into the Nationals' bullpen to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead.
"Didn't throw it with conviction," said Roark, who pitched seven innings. "It was a bad pitch. … Bad pitches, they get hit hard. And it happened today."
The Rangers added a second run in the top of the eighth inning off reliever Drew Storen when Murphy ripped a line-drive single to center field, scoring Daniel Robertson from second.
"I was able to go deep in the game and contribute to the win, so I was very glad," Darvish said. "I got a little tired, but I was able to do my job."
Center fielder Denard Span was the only hitter to not strike out against Darvish. He was also the only Nationals player to compile multiple hits against the Texas ace. He entered the contest 3-for-4 in his career against Darvish, and he went 2-for-4 on Sunday with a double.
"The long leg kick, for me, it works out perfectly for my style of hitting," Span said. "I get my foot down early and it gives me an opportunity to feel myself staying back."
Ultimately, Darvish proved to be too much for a hot-hitting Nationals offense that compiled 27 hits in the first two games of the series against the Rangers.
LaRoche said no amount of confidence could overcome a pitcher when he's in the zone, as Darvish was on Sunday.
"There's just times where you have to tip your cap," LaRoche said. "And I think today was one of them."