The sight of Justin Verlander leaving the mound at Yankee Stadium and tipping his cap to a sellout crowd is something the pinstriped faithful have dreamed about for years, dating to his 2011 MVP-Cy Young season for Detroit.
But when it finally happened Monday, the reality didn’t quite match up to the fantasy.
For one, Verlander wears an Astros jersey now — the uniform of the defending world champions — and the cap tip came in response to the Stadium’s raucous booing in the seventh inning as he walked off with a 4-1 lead, courtesy of his five-hit, five-strikeout performance.
Pulling that stunt in the Bronx? That was a boss move. And Verlander gave it the full lift and flip despite having a number of steps left before reaching the sanctuary of the dugout.
With a 1.11 ERA in his back pocket and supermodel wife Kate Upton waiting for him outside the clubhouse, Verlander’s got it going pretty good right now.
Oh, he heard the boos. And he savored every decibel of them.
“Yeah, I kind of expected it,” Verlander said, smiling. “I’ve come to find here in Yankee Stadium, it’s a term of endearment. So thank you.”
As for the cap-tip reply to the jeers, Verlander added that he was “just having some fun” with the fans. He may be dead serious about pitching but he thoroughly enjoys the game, probably in equal and opposite proportion to how much the Yankees despise facing him.
Verlander was the primary reason the Yankees got sent home last October. He won both of his starts with a 0.56 ERA and earned ALCS MVP honors. In the rematch May 1 at Minute Maid Park, Verlander struck out 14 (without a walk) in eight innings, allowing only three hits.
Verlander said he didn’t feel in peak form this Memorial Day and credited the Yankees for laying off his nastier breaking pitches and turning the afternoon into a “grind.” Yet he still stretched his scoreless-innings streak against them to 25 before Greg Bird’s leadoff homer in the seventh. Verlander usually finds a way when the pressure goes up, and he disarmed the mighty Yankees.
“Every five days is a big stage for him,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “But he thrives when there’s a lot of attention and a lot of people.”
Judging by the numbers, it appears that Verlander rejuvenated his career by going from the rebuilding Tigers to the heavyweight Astros, and he seems to be getting better. In 22 starts and one relief appearance (including the postseason) since the trade last August, he is 16-3 with a 1.36 ERA.
At the time of the swap, many felt it was a risky bet for the Astros to take on $43 million for Verlander through the 2019 season (the Tigers picked up more than $17 million). But he’s already paid for himself by helping to deliver the franchise’s first title, and now he is poised to lead the Astros to another.
“I’ve processed information at a much higher level than I ever have in my career,” said Verlander, who turned 35 in February. “And I’m executing pitches at a very high level.”
From the Yankees’ perspective, it’s hard not to look at Verlander as a missed opportunity. Their big pitching acquisition last season was Sonny Gray, so yeah. Imagine if Brian Cashman had wrestled Verlander from the Tigers instead. Now the Astros’ ace serves as a cautionary tale for the Yankees’ GM, who has to be obsessed this year with finding his very own Verlander.
That won’t be easy. Not the way Verlander has dominated.
Will the Giants part with Madison Bumgarner? Can the Rangers pick up some of Cole Hamels’ cash?
Regardless, there’s only one Verlander. He’s destined to be the Yankees’ nemesis for a while, and certainly a roadblock to their title chances this season.
“He uses all his pitches, when he wants them, where he wants them,” Bird said. “You’ve got to tip your cap to him.”
On Monday, it was Verlander who did the honors. The Yankees’ fear is that it won’t be for the last time in the Bronx.
Justin Verlander’s regular-season numbers since joining the Astros last Aug. 31:
INNINGS 115 1⁄3
EARNED RUNS 14