ARLINGTON, Texas -- Things were going just fine for 23-year-old Martin Perez until he threw a sixth straight ball in the middle of his third inning of Sunday's 1-0 Texas Rangers win over the Houston Astros.
Perez had walked Jonathan Villar, the No. 9 hitter, and was behind 2-0 to Dexter Fowler with one out when he backed off the mound to collect himself. Catcher Robinson Chirinos took the opportunity to trot out and talk to him.
"He told me that I needed to make a good pitch and that it didn't matter if they hit my good pitch that someone would catch it," Perez said. "He said, 'Pitch to straight to me at home, not toward third base.'"
In other words: Chirinos noticed Perez falling off toward third with his mechanics. Perez took notes and threw three straight changeups to Fowler, including the final one that got a swing and miss for a strikeout.
"That was big," Perez said. "That got me going again."
Perez's change and two-seam fastball were a real weapon on Sunday, helping him induce four ground-ball double plays (two on each pitch). That brings his season total to nine through just three starts, which leads the American League. The Astros never had a runner in scoring position, thanks to Chirinos' arm. The catcher caught Jonathan Villar trying to steal in the third and nabbed Matt Dominguez trying to do the same in the fifth.
For Perez, Sunday was another step forward in his progression. He has the stuff to collect plenty of strikeouts, but it's not his mentality. He had three on Sunday, but relied on ground balls and his defense to do the rest. They made some nice plays behind him too, namely a diving stop by Prince Fielder on a hard-hit ball near the line in the fourth and a Josh Wilson jumping snatch of a line drive in the fifth.
"I threw the ball down and I threw quality pitches," Perez said. "You have to throw a quality pitch and if you get a strikeout, fine. If not, you can get ground balls and fly balls to get outs."
Perez was pleased that even when runners got on base, he was able to bear down and not allow anything to come around to home plate. It's something he's worked toward improving this season.
"If you get outs with runners on base, you can win," Perez said. "You have to throw your pitch and trust your stuff."
Perez found his rhythm and stuck to it, pitching quickly and efficiently. He needed 102 pitches to go eight innings and, perhaps, later in the season he'd get the chance to finish off what he started. But this is still mid-April and the Rangers are conscious of building arms up. So it was Alexi Ogando's job to save the game and he did.
Perez won 10 games last year in making 20 starts and earning a long-term contract that solidified his spot in the rotation. Now he's trying to pitch deeper into games and work on his in-game strategy. Both were on display on Sunday. It was only the second time he's made it through eight innings. The other time was August of last year against the Houston Astros.
"I want to keep getting better and let my defense help me," Perez said. "They saved me a couple of hits. I said to myself, 'You have to win this game. You have to compete.'"