PHILADELPHIA — Justin Verlander has come to trust the round numbers on his baseball odometer — thousands of innings across hundreds of previous starts offering the understanding that he has probably experienced something similar in the past. At this stage of a veteran’s career, few firsts are still available to achieve, and Thursday proved to be his most meaningful.
When Verlander’s Astros teammates dumped him into a laundry cart and rolled him through Citizens Bank Park’s visiting clubhouse for a beer-soaked shower, it may as well have been a fountain of youth. At long last, Verlander can claim a victory in the Fall Classic, logging his elusive ‘W’ in the Astros’ 3-2 win over the Phillies in Game 5 of the World Series.
“I can say I got one,” Verlander said. “It was one of the best feelings in my career. I just truly love these guys. I love this team.”
Wearing a bemused expression that seemed equal parts elation and exhaustion, Verlander stood before his locker in the moments immediately following the final out. His uniform pants and the clubhouse carpet still dripped with beer. None of this had come easily for Verlander, who’ll have turned 40 by the next time he stands atop a mound, and he wanted to savor every drop.
“So many people were a part of this win,” Verlander said. “They rallied around me and they were almost just as happy that I got the win as I was. Just an incredible feeling. It feels great.”
Verlander held the Phillies to a run on four hits over five strong innings, walking four while striking out six in a 94-pitch effort. It marked the first time that Verlander exited a World Series game with his team leading; he’d been 0-6 with a 6.07 ERA in eight previous starts on the game’s biggest stage.
The evening started poorly for Verlander, who saw Kyle Schwarber slug his second pitch into the right-field seats for a game-tying homer. That was where Verlander’s years of experience came in handy; as he recounted, there was weight to the moment, but no panic. Verlander shrugged, thinking: “That sucks,” then kept pitching.
“You just kind of say, ‘OK, I’ve given up leadoff home runs before,'” Verlander said. “Let’s see what happens.”
Philadelphia threatened in the second inning, loading the bases on Jean Segura’s two-out single and back-to-back walks. Catcher Martín Maldonado calmed Verlander down at the mound, telling him: “The runners aren’t going anywhere. Just worry about executing pitches.” Verlander recovered to pin the bases loaded, striking out Rhys Hoskins swinging on a slider.
That slider, responsible for so many of the performances that have Verlander pointed towards the National Baseball Hall of Fame, proved to be a difference-maker against a Phillies lineup that seemed to sit on his fastball and refused to be fooled by his curveball. Verlander generated seven whiffs on the slider after recording none with that pitch in Game 1.
“He found something,” Maldonado said. “That’s why the guy is one of the best. He’s never satisfied.”
“Once we started leaning on [the sliders] a little bit, it was almost like testing the water, sticking your foot in the pool and seeing how cold it is,” Verlander explained. “Once we started using them a little bit and started seeing the reactions that we typically get most of the season from the hitters, then I think we started leaning on it a little bit more.”
Verlander induced Bryson Stott to fly out with two men on, ending the third. He’d later win a 10-pitch battle against Nick Castellanos in the fifth inning, surviving Bryce Harper’s two-out double.
After Castellanos’ flyout, Verlander and Baker warmly embraced in the visitors’ dugout. Baker later said that getting Verlander through five innings to qualify for the win “was in my heart.” Baker had fielded criticism for sticking with Verlander too long in Game 1, when an early five-run lead vanished in Houston’s 6-5, 10-inning loss.
“He was in trouble there a couple of times,” Baker said. “I remember my teammate Tommy John always told me that a good pitcher can get out of trouble twice, a great pitcher three times and a so-so pitcher maybe once. So I could hear Tommy John talking to me during the game.”
Funny that Baker mentioned that, considering Verlander’s incredible recovery from the surgery bearing the former pitcher’s name, returning as the American League’s likely Cy Young Award winner.
Holding a $25 million player option for next season that he is expected to decline, Thursday could have marked Verlander’s final start in an Astros uniform.
In the hours before Game 5, Verlander had remarked that his time in Houston had been “a hell of a ride.” With a win finally in his pocket and Houston heading home one victory from triumph, it’s been one heck of a finish, too.
“To have it happen on the biggest stage tonight,” Verlander said, “was pretty special.”