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World Series: Justin Verlander imperfect but still awfully good

Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander reacts after giving

Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander reacts after giving up a two-run home run to the Dodgers' Corey Seager during Game 2 of the World Series on Oct. 25, 2017, in Los Angeles. Credit: AP / David J. Phillip

LOS ANGELES -- While Justin Verlander couldn’t guarantee a victory for the Astros heading into Wednesday night’s pivotal Game 2 of this World Series, he was as close to a sure thing as there was on the Houston roster.

Verlander hadn’t lost wearing an Astros uniform, a spotless 9-0 record, and beat the Yankees twice in the previous round. But there’s another way to look at that, too. Maybe Verlander was overdue for a correction, and in Game 2, the Dodgers turned two mistakes into home runs that ended his night, but didn’t ruin it completely for the Astros, who rallied against the vaunted L.A. bullpen to take a 5-3 lead in the 10th inning.

Then the Dodgers tied it off Astros closer Ken Giles in the bottom half. The drama continued in the 11th, when the Astros’ George Springer hit a two-run homer for a 7-5 lead. The Dodgers cut it to 7-6 on Charlie Culberson’s homer off Chris Devenski, but he struck out Yasiel Puig to end it.

Verlander appeared ready to plow through the innings again for A.J. Hinch, whose suspect bullpen is best avoided, and his efficient pitch count early on was setting up a best-case scenario. But Joc Pederson got him for a tying homer in the fifth for the Dodgers’ first hit on Verlander’s 58th pitch. Corey Seager punished him further by drilling a 98-mph fastball into the leftfield pavilion that put the Dodgers ahead 3-1.

Seager’s home run was only the second time Verlander had surrendered a lead since joining the Astros — a stretch of 58 2⁄3 innings. The other? That came on a Sept. 5 homer to the Mariners’ Kyle Seager, also known as Corey’s older brother. Verlander was pulled after the sixth, and became the first World Series starter whose only two hits allowed were home runs.

The Dodgers, unlike the Yankees before them, did a better job laying off Verlander’s nasty arsenal of breaking pitches. According to Inside Edge, a scouting service, the L.A. hitters swung at only 37.5 percent of his off-speed stuff, as compared to 48.6 percent for the Yankees in their Game 6 loss and 56.9 percent in Game 2 of the ALCS.

If not for Verlander, it would have been the Yankees playing Wednesday night at Chavez Ravine. But he stopped them cold twice, the first time in Game 2, when Verlander went the distance and struck out 13 at Minute Maid Park for the 2-1 victory. Next was Game 6, after the reeling Astros dropped three straight in the Bronx, and Verlander was their firewall, the only barrier separating them from the frustrating winter on the other side.

We expressed some doubt that Verlander would rebound as strongly after the 124-pitch effort in Game 2. After all, Dallas Keuchel failed to duplicate his Game 1 gem when the Yankees got a second look at him, and Verlander was only human. He also hadn’t lost since the Astros acquired him from the Tigers minutes before the Aug. 31 deadline, so the law of averages was tilting in the other direction.

It didn’t matter. Verlander stood tall again, firing seven scoreless innings with eight strikeouts to beat the Yankees again and even the series at three games. We know what happened the following night, and that’s what put Verlander on the mound Wednesday, basically holding the Astros’ playoff fate in his right hand. And that was fine with Verlander, who’s thrived on this October pressure.

“I think the mental focus is just another level,” Verlander said on the eve of Game 2. “I think it’s something that would be easy to say, why don’t you just do that every game? It’s unsustainable throughout the course of the regular season. If you were that mentally focused, you’d just burn out. It’s just another level.”

The Astros have yet to lose (6-0) at home this postseason, but Verlander’s start was the one they needed to have in their pocket, even on enemy turf. And for a while there, he seemed ready to deliver it.

The Astros have yet to lose (6-0) at Minute Maid Park during this postseason, but Verlander’s start was the one they needed to have in their pocket, even on enemy turf. And for a while there, he seemed ready to deliver it. Verlander began with three perfect innings, whiffing four of those first six, and didn’t waver until Chris Taylor’s eight-pitch walk to open the fourth.

That failed to hurt Verlander, but he did get burned with two outs in the fifth inning by Pederson’s homer. That figured to be an inevitable slip, a bad mistake that Verlander could ultimately shrug off. Verlander never did, but fortunately for him, the Astros were able to do it and even the series.

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