Justin Verlander finally earns his first World Series victory
PHILADELPHIA — For a guy who didn’t pitch well, Justin Verlander certainly pitched well.
The Cooperstown-bound veteran was constantly struggling in Game 5 of the World Series. Still, the only run he allowed in five innings came off his second pitch. He followed up a masterpiece — Houston’s four-pitch no-hitter 24 hours earlier — with a masterclass. Navigating through its own Fall Classic misery, lack of familiar precise control and constant base traffic.
« He fought, » said his receiver, Martin Maldonado.
Verlander was not vintage. He recognized early on — the first clue being Kyle Schwarber’s homer — that the Phillies were chasing his fastball. Gradually, he found his cursor. But not fast enough to dominate and go deep into the game. But long enough for 15 outs and lining up Dusty Baker to deploy a superpowered bullpen to its best use. That was enough to give the Astros a stronghold in the 118th World Series.
« I don’t think JV would want it any other way, » Houston third baseman Alex Bregman said. “He had to make big throw after big throw. This is Justin Verlander.
For the first time in nine World Series starts, Verlander picked up a victory. « Victory » no longer has the appeal it once had. Still, not having one while sporting the worst ERA (6.07) for one of the 99 pitchers who had reached 30 innings of the Fall Classic stood out as the breach in the door of a career at Aston Martin.
But he overcame Schwarber’s homer early in the first which tied the score 1-1. And four walks – as many as he has recorded in his last five regular season outings spanning 32 innings. And runners in goalscoring position in three of his five innings. And his personal history in the World Series. And 45,693 loud, red-clad supporters. And no margin for error. All to help the Astros win 3-2 and go home with a three-to-two series lead.
If the Astros win either of the next two games, they will have won two titles since Verlander arrived in August 2017 — this season’s championship marred by the sign-stealing scandal and this year’s. This one, however, comes with one brilliant Astro arm after another. Most are young like Cristian Javier, who delivered the first six innings of the no-hitter Wednesday; Framber Valdez, who will start potential Game 6 tiebreaker on Saturday; and Bryan Abreu, who is up to 10 ¹/₃ shutout innings this playoff out of the bullpen.
Still, the leader is Verlander, the favorite to capture his third AL Cy Young. In his 39 season. After missing most of the previous two seasons after Tommy John’s surgery. Nonetheless, there is wear and tear on an older pitching body that travels November thanks to so little work in 2020-21. And the mental strain of the great pitcher who wears that giant World Series stain.
And then on Verlander’s second pitch, Schwarber went deep right to counter the Astros’ run in the top of the first against Noah Syndergaard. By then, Verlander had given up 13 runs on 20 hits in 15 innings this postseason. The crowd at Citizens Bank Park was at its peak. Verlander escaped a goal-laden jam in second-and-first and third-in-third. He then locked with his slider to go 1-2-3 in the fourth and fill the last two outs of that inning and the first two in the fifth with strikeouts. But then Bryce Harper doubled down. Hector Neris was warming up.
If Neris comes in, Verlander doesn’t have the five innings required for a win. It would be the starting No. 9 in the World Series without one.
« Yes, it’s in my heart, » admitted Baker. « It was in my head. » But so was the tying point in scoring position. Nonetheless, “He was one of the best at getting out of trouble and, to me, that was his game. As I’ve said many times, it’s our ace, and it’s hard to pull your ace because that’s why he is the ace. Who can you bring? I mean, we have a great paddock, but who better to bring in than the guy over there in Verlander? »
Verlander conceded that was on his mind too, and Nick Castellanos forced the big right-hander to empty his reservoir, leading a 10-pitch battle that Verlander won when Castellanos blasted off to keep Houston ahead 2-1.
Verlander and the Astros should be sweating until the end, helped by a bounding catch hitting the fence by center fielder Chas McCormick, robbing JT Realmuto of at least one one-out brace in the ninth. Ryan Pressly finished to ensure the Astros would be one win away from a championship and Verlander would earn the first World Series victory of his career.
When asked what it meant to remove that stain, Verlander replied, « I can say I got one. »