HOUSTON — There were a few things for the Astros to worry about following the team’s 2-0 loss to Texas in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Sunday night.
Justin Verlander wasn’t one of them.
If Houston gets this version of Verlander for the rest of October, it will be a serious boon, as the 40-year-old — who finally vanquished his playoff demons in winning the World Series last year — impressively held baseball’s best-remaining offense to its worst offensive night.
Consider this: The Rangers entered Sunday with an astonishing 32 runs in five playoff games. No starter had thrown a quality start against them. No one had even recorded an out in the sixth. Verlander pitched into the seventh, going 6 2/3 innings and holding Texas to just six hits and two runs on a five-strikeout night that seemed to get better as he went along.
“I was a bit erratic the first couple innings, especially fastball control,” Verlander said of his 101-pitch outing. This marked his 36th career postseason start, moving him into second place all-time behind Andy Pettitte. “It cleaned up as the game went on. Kinda started to find my groove there the last innings.”
Verlander, working on extra rest, threw six scoreless frames against the Twins in Game 1 of the AL Division Series last weekend and has now allowed just three runs in 25 2/3 innings pitched across his last three outings. In his last 16 starts, dating back to the regular season, Verlander is 11-3 with a 2.61 ERA (29 earned runs, 100 innings pitched.)
While Verlander, who has historically been a high-strikeout guy, didn’t get many whiffs, he did hold the Rangers’ middle-of-the-order bats in check, including an 0-for-3 night from Marcus Semien. Semien entered the game with a career 14-for-43 (.326) head-to-head against Verlander, with a double, triple and two home runs. Of the Rangers’ top four batters, only Corey Seager mustered a hit off Verlander, a first-inning single. Both of Texas’ runs came from the bottom-third of their lineup: a second-inning RBI single from Nathaniel Lowe and Leody Taveras’ fifth-inning homer.
“They’ve been a prodigious offense all season long. You know your work is cut out for you. I guess the problem that presents is a lineup like that is so deep, you can’t just focus on a pocket of hitters and say, ‘If I don’t let them beat me, I’ll be good,’” said Verlander, who exited to an ovation from the crowd after allowing a seventh-inning single from Taveras. “Every one of their guys has the opportunity to beat you. You got to be on your game, 1-9 and if you’re not they’ll make you pay.”
The slider to Tavares was the one truly bad pitch Verlander made, as it hung up and over the plate, and the Rangers center fielder made it a two-run game.
“I think Verlander threw the ball great. (He was) amazing,” Astros catcher Martín Maldonado said of an outing in which Verlander had to grind early to keep the Rangers from putting up a crooked number.
“JV, you know he’s going to attack the strike zone and mix and match. He kept us in the ballgame. He made one mistake for the homer, but he threw the ball really, really, really good.”
While he doesn’t watch the game between innings, Verlander does walk in the tunnel connected to the dugout to think about his outing. But he didn’t have to watch Rangers starter Jordan Montgomery throw to know how well he was pitching: Verlander could see the zeroes on the scoreboard on each trip to the mound and could hear the crowd get quieter as the game went deeper. Texas is 6-0 this postseason and has led in 45 of 54 playoff innings and trailed in just one (after the first inning of Game 2 in the ALDS).
When Verlander pitches next, the series could have a much different feel and much higher stakes.
“We just got punched,” Verlander said. “How do you answer?”
(Photo of Justin Verlander: Bob Levey / Getty Images)