HOUSTON — All sorts of thoughts ran through the Astros’ heads when they heard their club might be acquiring Justin Verlander, starting with the plea from Dallas Keuchel, trying to convince Verlander to accept the deal, telling him, “You’re not going to regret this.”
Jose Altuve recalls not believing it at first, then when he heard it officially, he regretted the team was headed toward a day off because he wanted to see Verlander in a Houston uniform right away.
Brian McCann recalls receiving a text from coach Alex Cora that said, “Game on.”
Fact is, what they really all envisioned was this. When Verlander agreed to waive his no-trade clause, his new teammates all instantly dreamed of seeing what they saw Saturday afternoon: A big-time ace throwing an old-time gem, a Nolan Ryan-type complete game. They saw him throw 124 pitches and go the distance, achievements that pitchers just don’t do any more. Except that he did it as the Astros beat the Yankees, 2-1, in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. Verlander finished with a postseason career-high 13 strikeouts.
”When you’re talking about the postseason, you’re talking about Justin Verlander. MVP, Cy Young, he’s been tested before. So, it doesn’t surprise me he would throw 124 pitches and still throw a one-run game,” Carlos Correa said.
“I do consider myself an old-school type pitcher and I do think Mr. Ryan was in the crowd again today. I noticed that,” Verlander said with a grin, acknowledging that the Hall of Famer is his hero. “I think I have conditioned myself to throw that many pitches. I think early in my career when things in baseball were kind of transitioning from older school to newer school, I was fortunate to have a manager in [Jim] Leyland who realized that I got stronger as games went on and let me continue to pitch. I’m thankful for that.”
Verlander’s arrival, after consenting to the trade just before the deadline for postseason eligibility, lifted an entire hurricane-ravaged city. Right away, he pledged $100,000 to the relief effort. Also right away, he had a conversation with manager A.J. Hinch about how he would be used, gaining assurances that he would not be on a short leash.
The arrangement was that Verlander always would be honest in saying how much strength and energy he had left in a given game. A conversation like that happened in the Astros dugout Saturday afternoon, but as Hinch said, when asking any pitcher if he feels OK, “The answer is 100 percent yes.”
Hinch believed in what his eyes and his gut told him, that Verlander had a lot left in the tank. After struggling with his slider in the middle innings, allowing the only Yankees run on consecutive doubles in the fifth, the 34-year-old pitcher regained his stride, and then some. After two strikeouts in the seventh, the manager approached him about coming out.
“I probably wasn’t the nicest guy,” Verlander said. “He didn’t ask after the eighth. It was my game to win or lose.”
He won it when Correa’s double drove in Altuve in the bottom of the ninth. That was after he had the crowd roaring by striking out the side in the eighth and after he drew an ovation for taking the mound in the ninth. Fans had foreseen this kind of game, too.
And, most important, so had Verlander. “This is what I envisioned when I made that decision. When it came down to it, when I decided to say yes, these are the moments you envision,” he said. “I was brought here to try to help this team win a championship. I’m aware of that and I’m going to do everything I can.
“Today was just one step. I try not to see the bigger picture. It’s one at a time. I’m pretty tired now, obviously. It’s pretty mentally exhausting, the playoffs. But that’s what it’s all about. After that game is over and just kind of sitting in the clubhouse and have my teammates come over and say how much they appreciate the effort, that means everything to me.”
Justin Verlander pitched a complete-game gem for the Astros in Game 2. He allowed run and five hits, walking one and striking out 13. It was the seventh time he’s had 10-plus strikeouts in the playoffs.
Games with 10-plus K in postseason history
Justin Verlander 7
Cliff Lee 5
Randy Johnson 5