History had just slipped from his grasp, or more accurately, through his legs, yet Texas Rangers right-hander Yu Darvish was unfazed.
When asked to recall his thoughts immediately after watching the ball Houston Astros shortstop Marwin Gonzalez hit with two outs in the ninth inning roll into centre field and end his bid for a perfect game, Darvish delivered a statement equal parts humorous and stunning.
"I can now go back to the dugout," Darvish said.
Darvish just missed tossing the 24th perfect game in baseball history when the 27th and final batter he faced, Gonzalez, singled back through the box. The Rangers ultimately completed their 7-0 shutout of the Astros on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park, but did so without Darvish.
Darvish hadn't thrown more than 78 pitches during spring training, so by the time he returned to the mound in the ninth with 107 pitches on his ledger, he was fatigued. Houston's Jason Castro and Carlos Corporan helped his cause by swinging early in their at-bats, enabling Darvish (1-0) to record two outs on three pitches. But then Gonzalez jumped on the 111th pitch, a 91 mph cut fastball, and history was lost.
"I think my teammates were more disappointed than I was," Darvish said. "If I got the complete game today, it's not going to translate to three or five wins. It's a win. A win is a win. My teammates are a little more disappointed than I am."
Darvish was removed from the game after the Gonzalez single. Left-hander Michael Kirkman entered and allowed a single to Jose Altuve before striking out pinch hitter J.D. Martinez to end the game.
Darvish tied the Minute Maid Park record for strikeouts with 14, a mark first set by Astros right-hander Bud Norris against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Aug. 14, 2010, and matched by Atlanta Braves right-hander Tommy Hanson on June 12, 2011.
"I certainly would have liked to see him catch that ball up the middle, but it didn't happen, so undoubtedly, it wasn't in the stars," Rangers manager Ron Washington said.
Detroit Tigers right-hander Armando Galarraga was the last pitcher to lose a perfect game against the 27th batter when first base umpire Jim Joyce incorrectly ruled the Indians' Jason Donald safe on June 2, 2010 at Comerica Park.
Rangers catcher A.J. Pierzynski, who caught the 21st perfect game in baseball history on April 21, 2012, nearly caught another Tuesday. Pierzynski was the backstop when Chicago White Sox right-hander Philip Humber blanked the Seattle Mariners 4-0 at Safeco Field last year. Humber was later released by the White Sox and signed with the Astros, and he will make his Houston debut in the series finale Wednesday.
With one more out, Darvish could have tied or broken the record for strikeouts in a perfect game. The mark is 14, set by Los Angeles Dodgers Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax in 1965 against the Chicago Cubs and matched by San Francisco Giants right-hander Matt Cain, who tossed a perfect game against the Astros at AT&T Park last June 13.
In addition to the perfect games by Humber and Cain last year, Mariners right-hander Felix Hernandez threw one against the Tampa Bay Rays on Aug. 15.
The Rangers have five no-hitters in their history, the last coming July 28, 1994, when Kenny Rogers threw a perfect game against the California Angels. Nolan Ryan threw no-hitters for Texas in 1990 and 1991. Jim Bibby had one in 1973, and Bert Blyleven accomplished the feat in 1977.
Darvish flashed an unhittable fastball-slider combination from the onset.
After striking out Altuve and Brett Wallace to open his outing, Darvish struck out the side in the second inning, closing the frame with three consecutive called strikes against Justin Maxwell. Castro and Corporan actually managed to put the ball in play in the third, but Darvish recovered to fan four consecutive batters, including the Houston side in the fourth. By the close of the fifth, he'd already recorded his ninth career 10-strikeout game, reaching that plateau in just his 30th start.
"He threw all seven of his pitches in, out, up, down and every way you could throw a ball tonight," Pierzynski said. "You get to that point and you start thinking it's going to happen, but it just wasn't meant to be."
Astros right-hander Lucas Harrell (0-1) wasn't as dominant. Harrell pitched according to the scouting report, inducing four ground-ball outs before running into trouble in the third.
The Rangers strung together consecutive one-out hits before shortstop Elvis Andrus worked a walk to load the bases ahead of Lance Berkman. Facing a 1-2 count, Berkman poked a single the opposite way into left field to score Craig Gentry, who doubled, and give Texas a 1-0 lead.
Rangers second baseman Ian Kinsler added a two-run homer off Rhiner Cruz in the seventh inning, the first of three consecutive frames in which Texas scored twice.
Down the stretch, the only drama involved Darvish and his pursuit of history. Gonzalez interjected himself as a footnote.
"I didn't want to be the last out," Gonzalez said. "I was trying to look for a good pitch to hit and put it in play. Thatís all I was thinking in my mind."
Astros manager Bo Porter said of Darvish, "He ended up not throwing a no-hitter, not throwing a perfect game, but he had perfect-game stuff. It was more about him than it was about us."