Against the Astros, however, his pitches seemed flat. He looked uncomfortable on the mound, fidgeting and slowing his pace.
After coughing up the home run to Gurriel to start the second inning, Darvish gave up a double to right fielder Josh Reddick and walked designated hitter Evan Gattis. Normally, pitching coaches run out to the mound to talk to a sputtering pitcher. Manager Dave Roberts did it instead, with the entire infield converging on the mound. Roberts left Darvish in the game.
The momentary reprieve did not work. Left fielder Marwin Gonzalez smashed a ball off the left-center field wall that looked like a double, but Gattis advanced only to second base. Gonzalez settled for a run-scoring single. Catcher Brian McCann followed with another single that drove in a run.
And after center fielder George Springer lined out, third baseman Alex Bregman gave the Astros a 4-0 lead with a sacrifice fly that scored Gonzalez.
When Jose Altuve doubled, Roberts had seen enough. He emerged from the dugout, and this time Darvish was coming out to end the shortest start of his career.
“I’m not going to lie, I was a little concerned before the game about facing him. Everybody knows how good he is,” Altuve said, adding: “I don’t think he made some bad pitches, he made some good pitches. But the guys could barrel the ball.”
Of the 49 pitches he threw, Darvish induced only one swing and miss. For the first time in his career, Darvish did not strike out a batter in a game he started.
Meanwhile, McCullers vacillated between strong and shaky. He was helped by the Astros’ defense, which has been sound all series and helped save runs on Friday.
In the first inning, Altuve robbed a hit from Corey Seager with a ranging play at second base, and Springer raced to deep center field to catch Justin Turner’s fly ball.
When McCullers got himself in trouble by walking three batters to load the bases in the third inning, his defense helped him wriggle out with minimal damage. Gurriel, Correa and McCullers pulled of a slick double play that allowed a run but notched critical outs. Then McCullers got Turner to ground out to end the inning.