Mandatory Credit: Photo by David J Phillip/AP/Shutterstock (13457396aq) Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander (35) walks to the dugout after the fourth inning in Game 1 of an American League Division Series baseball game against the Seattle Mariners in Houston ALDS Mariners Astros Baseball, Houston, United States – 11 Oct 2022
Entering tonight’s first game of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees, the Astros need two players in particular to rebound from poor performances in the three-game sweep against the Mariners.
Justin Verlander was shelled in the first game against Seattle, but Yordan Alvarez bailed him out with his three-run, walk-off home run in the 8-7 victory at Minute Maid Park. Verlander gets the start against the Yankees, who won 99 games and rallied to beat the Guardians to advance to the ALCS.
Jose Altuve went 0-for-16 against the Mariners. He set a torrid pace over the last month of the season to finish with a .300 average to go with 28 home runs. Against Seattle, though, Altuve became so frustrated he was swinging at pitches so far out of the strike zone he had no chance to connect.
The Astros need for Altuve to provide the same kind of spark at the top of the order as he did in regular season. His oh-fer against Seattle was rare. The way he finished the season so impressively made his performance at the plate difficult to figure.
Against the Yankees, who were eliminated by the Astros one step shy of the World Series in 2017 and 2019, the Astros might not be able to overcome subpar performances by two of their star players.
Verlander, 18-4 with a 1.75 ERA, is destined to be the American League Cy Young Award winner. The Astros need their ace to pitch a lot better than his performance against Seattle. In four innings, he allowed 10 hits and six runs.
Verlander is going against Jameson Taillon, The Woodlands native who fashioned a 14-5 record and a 3.91 ERA.
After being lifted early against the Mariners, there was speculation that Verlander could have been feeling lingering effects from the calf injury he suffered in late August. But he pitched five no-hit innings in his last start before the playoffs.
“I’ve been working hard to get my mechanics where I want them and kind of fix a few bad habits that have crept in,” Verlander said Tuesday. “I’m excited to get back out there. I feel good.”
Fans and media are eager to see if Verlander can recover and pitch well enough to help defeat the Yankees and Aaron Judge, who should win the American League MVP award.
“I think since the calf injury, coming back hasn’t been as consistent as I would like,” Verlander said. “I was on a pretty good stretch before that. Little tweaks to the lower half, you hear pitchers talk about it all the time. We work so hard on our legs and lower-body strength because that’s where we generate (power) from. Any little tweaks to the lower half can have major effects upstream.
“I don’t think it was a big issue, but it did probably create a little bit of mechanical issues, and I’ve been working on that since I came back. I’ve been working really hard. Hopefully, after the last one, I think I identified some stuff that was kind of the key component.”
Verlander, who turns 40 in February, is enjoying one of the best seasons of his storied career. He has no intentions of retiring any time soon as long as he’s healthy and pitching the way he has this season. The question is, will he sign a new contract and return for another season at the top of the Astros’ rotation?
“I love the game,” he said. “I love competing. I just want to play until they rip the jersey off me. I’m not going to be out there making a fool of myself, don’t get me wrong. It’s just the way I’ve always envisioned it. You see the greats of the past, and those guys pitched into their 40s. It was never a question in my mind that if you want to be great, that’s what you have to do.”
Verlander doesn’t have to throw a pitch after turning 40. He’s already cemented his reputation as one of the greatest pitchers in history who should be a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection.
“I’ve prepared myself to do that since I started throwing a baseball,” Verlander said about pitching into his 40s. “I think with that mentality, you have a long-term vision and goal.
“I love being around my teammates. We have such a short window as athletes to play the game that really has defined my life up to this point, up until I got married and had my daughter. When I’m done, I would never want to look back with regret that I didn’t find out how far I could take this. I, obviously, was gifted to throw a baseball, so why would I stop that short?”
The Astros have the best and deepest pitching staff in baseball. Dusty Baker has an embarrassment of riches in that department.
No matter how long Verlander lasts against the Yankees, he’ll exit knowing he’s left the Astros in great hands. Baker has terrific starters and relievers, including Ryan Pressly as an outstanding closer.
“These guys make it easy on me as a starter,” Verlander said. “All the other starters, all the guys in the bullpen, whether it’s coming out of the game a little earlier than I would like, the guy coming in behind me is elite. It’s been really impressive.
“It’s just a lot of fun to watch. I would put us right up there as a starting staff against some of the best teams I’ve ever been a part of. And then the bullpen is, if not the best, one of the best I’ve been part of, as well. You see how hard it is to score runs against us – besides me in the first series – and that makes it a lot easier to win games.”
To win this opening game of the ALCS, Verlander has to be at his best, certainly better than he was against the Mariners.
(John McClain can be heard Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday on Sports Radio 610 and Monday and Thursday on Texans Radio. He does three weekly Houtopia podcasts for 610. He also can be read three times a week on SportsRadio610.com).