Mets starter Justin Verlander has pitched to a 4.85 ERA in...

Mets starter Justin Verlander has pitched to a 4.85 ERA in his first seven starts this season. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Justin Verlander, deeply familiar with being rivals with the Yankees as the former ace of the Astros, is pumped for his first foray into the Subway Series, because of course he is. This is the Big Apple good stuff. Interborough battles are more fun than regular games.

These days, though, occupying more of Verlander’s brain than the opponent is himself. Which is why he changed the subject — immediately, instinctively, amiably.

“I’m excited about it,” said Verlander, who will pitch for the Mets on Wednesday night at Citi Field. “I know the energy will be great. I’m just trying to pitch a little better.”

Forgive Verlander for his one-track mind as he attempts to get back on course.

Speaking to the media Sunday morning in Pittsburgh, three days after his most recent start and three days before his next one, he already had a sweaty lather after a longer-than-usual throwing session. It was part of his effort to figure out whatever it is that has gone wrong — and he isn’t totally sure of the reason.

Through seven starts, Verlander has a 4.85 ERA, a surprisingly poor performance for a guy with a $43.3 million salary (tied with Max Scherzer for the highest in baseball history).

The last time he had a stretch this bad over this many games was late 2018. That was two Cy Young Awards and a second World Series title ago.

“I’m not paid the way I’m paid — and I don’t expect — to pitch like that,” Verlander said. “Right now it’s too hard. It’s like having to grind for every out. Nothing is coming easy. Not that anything is ever easy, but when I’m right, it’s a whole hell of a lot easier.

“I’m not just OK being mediocre or subpar. It’s not in my DNA. I’m going to work harder than anybody on the planet to fix it.”

Verlander relies primarily on three pitches: four-seam fastball, slider and curveball. Two of those have been getting absolutely whacked.

Opposing hitters batted .194 and slugged .285 last year against the fastball. This year, those numbers are .285 and .531.

With the curveball, Verlander held hitters to a .158 average and .267 slugging percentage in 2022. Those have jumped to .267 and .609 this season.

All of that has left Verlander searching. And it isn’t for a lack of effort.

“I know when I’m right,” he said. “So it’s like, I know this isn’t right. I know what’s happening isn’t right, so I need to find it. OK, let’s try this, try it, try it, try it, try it, pitch — [expletive].

“Try, try, try, try, try — oh, maybe! And then another start later, OK, that wasn’t quite it. Back to the drawing board.”

Manager Buck Showalter said: “He’s not one of those guys who just says ‘it’s one of those outings.’ He wants to know why exactly and fix it and be better each time out.”

Verlander’s weird season began with a muscle strain near his right armpit, delaying his Mets debut by more than a month. Since then, he has struggled to find consistency.

He allowed two hits and one run against the Reds in his second start May 10 but gave up eight hits and six runs to the Rays in his next outing. Then he allowed one run and three hits in eight innings against Cleveland on May 21 but gave up six runs and nine hits in five innings in Colorado on May 28.

Even when he was effective against the Blue Jays, he needed 117 pitches to get through six innings of one-run ball, an unusually high workload even for a modern workhorse. And then he allowed five runs (four earned) and seven hits in three innings against Atlanta last week, afterward describing his recent run as “feast or famine.”

“It’s funny. You go eight innings, throw 115, you feel great,” he said. “Six innings and 115 is a different story. Three innings and 80 is a different story. Every pitch is stressful. Just a massive toll. I need to tone it down a little bit.”

Those last couple of sentences were hushed. He sounded as if he were trying to talk himself into it.

“I am,” he said. “If I’m working too hard, maybe that’s taking a toll. Maybe the fix is doing a little less.”

He paused and added: “But the mental gymnastics is not easy.”

Verlander was referencing a vicious cycle: Because he feels off, he has been throwing more between outings. But because he has been throwing more, he isn’t quite as recovered/rested when he takes the mound in the next game. So then he isn’t as effective as he wants to be. So then he throws more.

“I think I’m trending in the right direction,” he said. “I hope I find it, because I need to not throw so much.”

With a 3.44 career ERA against the Yankees, Verlander often has fun against them. His Astros eliminated them in the ALCS in 2017, ’19 and ’22. After his solid regular-season start on May 28, 2018, the Yankee Stadium crowd booed Verlander, who tipped his cap — a memory he fondly recalled.

“I loved it,” Verlander said of the Astros-Yankees rivalry. “I was also pitching well. That was fun. I got booed coming off the mound in Yankee Stadium because I pitched well and I tipped my cap. That’s New York. That’s fun.

Verlander gave up one run and five hits in 6 2⁄3 innings before departing.

“Baseball needs those rivalries, man. It’s cool. It’s good for the game,’’ he said. “Subway Series, center of the universe, two teams going at it. I’m pumped to be a part of it.”


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