PHILADELPHIA — Justin Verlander has come to trust the round numbers on his baseball odometer — thousands of innings over hundreds of previous starts offering the understanding that he’s likely experienced something similar in the past. At this point in a veteran’s career, few firsts are still available to achieve, and Thursday turned out to be his most significant.
When Verlander’s Astros teammates threw him in a laundry cart and wheeled him into the Citizens Bank Park clubhouse for a beer-soaked shower, it may as well have been a fountain of youth. . Finally, Verlander can claim a victory in the Fall Classic, registering his elusive “W” in the Astros’ 3-2 win over the Phillies in Game 5 of the World Series.
“I can say I have one,” Verlander said. “It was one of the best feelings of my career. I really love these guys. I love this team.”
Wearing a puzzled expression that seemed both elation and exhaustion, Verlander stood in front of his locker in the moments immediately following the final outing. His uniform pants and the clubhouse carpet were still dripping with beer. None of this had come easily for Verlander, who will be 40 the next time he stands atop a mound, and he wanted to savor every drop.
“So many people were part of this win,” Verlander said. “They rallied around me and they were almost as happy I won as I was. Just an amazing feeling. He feels good.”
Verlander held the Phillies to a run on four hits in five solid innings, walking four while striking out six in a 94-pitch effort. It was the first time Verlander had left a World Series game with his team in the lead; he had been 0-6 with a 6.07 ERA in eight previous starts on the game’s biggest stage.
The night got off to a bad start for Verlander, who saw Kyle Schwarber hit his second pitch into the right field seats for a tying homer. This is where Verlander’s years of experience have come in handy; as he recounted, there was weight in the moment, but no panic. Verlander shrugged, thinking, “That sucks,” then kept throwing.
“You just kind of say, ‘OK, I’ve already given up on starter circuits,'” Verlander said. “Let’s see what happens.”
Philadelphia threatened in the second inning, charging in on Jean Segura’s single and consecutive runs. Receiver Martín Maldonado calmed Verlander at the mound, telling him, “Runners aren’t going anywhere. Only worry about executing the pitches. Verlander recovered to pin the loaded bases, hitting Rhys Hoskins swinging on a slider.
That slider, responsible for so many performances Verlander steered into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, proved to be a difference maker against a Phillies roster that seemed to sit on its fastball and refuse to let go. fooled by his curve ball. Verlander generated seven puffs on the slider after not registering any with that pitch in Game 1.
“He found something,” Maldonado said. “That’s why the guy is one of the best. He is never satisfied.
“Once we started relying on [the sliders] kinda, it was almost like testing the waters, stepping into the pool and seeing how cold it gets,” Verlander explained. “Once we started using them a little bit and we started seeing the feedback that we usually get most of the season from hitters, I think we started leaning into them a little bit more. “
Verlander prompted Bryson Stott to fly off with two men, ending the third. He would later win a 10-pitch battle against Nick Castellanos in the fifth inning, surviving Bryce Harper’s brace.
After the flight from Castellanos, Verlander and Baker embraced warmly in the visitors’ dugout. Baker later said that getting Verlander through five rounds to qualify for the win “was in my heart”. Baker had been criticized for staying too long with Verlander in Game 1, when a five-run lead vanished in Houston’s 6-5, 10-inning loss.
“He got in trouble there a few times,” Baker said. “I remember my teammate Tommy John always telling me that a good pitcher can get away with it twice, a great pitcher maybe three times and an average pitcher maybe once. So I could hear Tommy John talking to me during the game.
It’s funny that Baker mentioned that, considering Verlander’s incredible recovery from surgery bearing the former pitcher’s name, returning as the likely winner of the American League’s Cy Young Award.
Holding a $25 million player option for next season that he is expected to decline, Thursday could have marked Verlander’s last start in an Astros uniform.
In the hours leading up to Game 5, Verlander remarked that his time in Houston had been “one hell of a ride.” With a win finally in its pocket and Houston heading home one win after triumph, it was a hell of a finish, too.
“For it to happen on the biggest stage tonight,” Verlander said, “it was pretty special.”