ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- At this point of the season, the Texas Rangers need to just stay afloat while a majority of their starting rotation works its way back from injuries. Entering Sunday, the club faced the risk of losing its third straight game and falling to 2-4, a place it hadn't been since 2007 when Texas finished with a 75-87 record.
"It was what we needed," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "He was just Yu Darvish today."
The Japanese phenom seemed as if he was on his way to breaking the strikeout record for a single game when he finished the second frame with five punchouts. He would go on to finish the 89-pitch outing with six strikeouts, but in doing so, he set the major league record by recording his 500th strikeout in 401 ⅔ innings when he fanned Wil Myers in the first.
The 27-year-old right-hander was masterful in his first start of the 2014 campaign, his first appearance since taking the mound in a March 16 Cactus League affair against the Chicago White Sox. Better yet, he matched zeroes with Rays starter Alex Cobb, who struck out six and walked one in seven scoreless innings.
"It has all come with good health and taking care of myself," said Darvish, who broke Kerry Wood's record of 500 strikeouts in 404 ⅔ innings. "It was not like I was 20 or 21 when I came here so it is tough to compare. But it has come through good health."
The quality start comes a day after rookie Nick Martinez allowed three runs over six innings in the Rangers' 5-4 loss. The two consecutive outings of solid pitching comes after no starter had lasted as many as six innings in the first four games of the season.
The righty, who allowed a hit in each inning, faced trouble once, in the fifth inning when he had two runners on base and one out. Calmly, though, he escaped the minor scuffle by forcing Myers into a fly out and striking out Ben Zobrist.
"He got ahead of the hitters with first-pitch strikes and he got some quick outs," Washington said. "That's a team over there that battles and fights and [Darvish] made the pitches when he had to."
With a plethora of pitches in his arsenal, Darvish used the slider effectively to keep the Rays at bay. Of his 89 pitches, 32 were sliders, 22 for strikes. Only two of his seven hits allowed were off the slider.
"He had a good game plan and he stuck with it," J.P. Arencibia said. "He pitched out of [the trouble in the fifth] and he executed when he needed. It's what you can expect from him."
Darvish jokingly said in the postgame news conference that if he had a similar length of time between starts, he could pitch with ease like this all the time. While his tongue-in-cheek comment may be true, the reality is that Washington was not about to risk putting his ace out on the mound after the seventh.
"We had guys down there in the bullpen who I felt they could come get us those last six outs," Washington said. "[Yu] said he didn't feel like he had any rust, and I think today he showed that he didn't. I felt comfortable going to the mound after he had gotten up and down seven times."
"It feels good," Andrus said when asked about being able to help Darvish and the team. "He didn't give up anything the entire game. It feels good for the team."
Andrus, who had four home runs last season, did not hit his first homer in 2013 until Aug. 10 at the Houston Astros. It is the second home run for the Rangers this season, the first since Alex Rios had one on Opening Day.
While Alexi Ogando made things interesting by putting two men on in the eighth, Neal Cotts recovered from a blown save on Saturday by ending the threat with a strikeout of Matt Joyce. After Donnie Murphy helped give the Rangers a 3-0 cushion with a two-out infield single that scored Adrian Beltre from third, Joakim Soria pitched a perfect ninth to preserve the win for Darvish.
"It was nice to get Cotts out there," Washington said.
The Rangers now move on to Boston, where they start a three-game series on Monday against the 2013 World Champs.
"I get the butterflies every time I step into Fenway Park," Washington said. "I just hope they don't turn into moths."