PHILADELPHIA — The achievements Justin Verlander has piled up since being traded to the Astros in the final seconds before the Trade Deadline in 2017 are enough to fill a career for most pitchers. Never mind that he already had a terrific career for 12 seasons in Detroit prior to coming to Houston.
Since he slipped on an Astros jersey, Verlander has won a World Series championship, earned his second American League Cy Young Award (and will likely win a third this year), threw his third career no-hitter, surpassed 3,000 strikeouts and was the 2017 ALCS Most Valuable Player. What remains missing on his résumé is a World Series win, something he can rectify in his Game 5 start on Thursday against the Phillies. He will have big shoes to fill, as Houston twirled the second no-hitter in World Series history en route to beating Philadelphia, 5-0, in Game 4. The Series is now tied, 2-2.
With his contract up at the end of the season and Verlander likely to opt out of his $25 million contract for 2023, his Game 5 start could be his final one in a Houston uniform. He’ll be 40 years old on Opening Day next year, but he should have a strong free agent market for his services coming off one of his best seasons.
“Really and truly, it’s been a hell of a ride no matter what happens, whether I stay or don’t,” Verlander said. “I’ve really enjoyed my time with this group of guys and the city and getting to know the city. And it’s really been a blessing and a wonderful time in my career. So I’m trying not to think about it. I’m trying to be present. We talked a lot about how this year I’ve just tried to be more in the moment and be present and enjoy the ride.”
In eight career World Series starts, Verlander is 0-6 with a 6.07 ERA. He was staked to a 5-0 lead in Game 1 of the World Series on Friday, but couldn’t protect the lead. He gave up five runs on six hits and two walks over five innings, and the Phillies rallied for a 6-5 win in 10 innings.
“I did find some mechanical things that I needed to clean up,” Verlander said. “I’ve been working really hard since then. But there’s really no way to know how it’s going until you get in the game and see the hitters’ reactions. So you work as hard as you possibly can. You take that into practice, you see how it feels — ‘Are you getting the desired results?’ — and then you take it into the game and hope that’s it.”
Verlander has battled some mechanical issues in the lower half of his body since returning from a brief stint on the injured list with a calf injury. He’s 3-1 with a 3.55 ERA in seven starts (regular season and postseason) since his return and admits he hasn’t been quite as good as he was prior to the injury.
“But the only thing I can do is try to prepare the best I can,” Verlander said. “Whether it’s contributed or not, when you’ve had a couple bad starts and things aren’t as sharp as they were, you look at what could be the underlying reason for that. … But I kind of go back to the beginning of my mechanics, and I’m very lower-half driven. So, to me, that did play a part in it.”
Depending on what happens in Game 4, Verlander could be trying to save the Astros’ season when he starts Game 5. He’s pitched in pressure situations before and said he doesn’t plan to change his plan of attack too much depending on the situation.
“The strategy is slightly different [in the postseason],” Verlander said, “whereas in the regular season, if something’s a little off or you have a high pitch count inning or something, you can try to massage the pitch count a little bit and make some pitches here or there that you think you can get some quick outs. But in the playoffs, you can’t risk giving up a run or two with those types of pitches. So there is a bit of a different strategy, but I don’t think it changes based upon where we’re at inside the series.”