Richard Justice: Justin Verlander gets his chance after the Astros deliver one of the most magical World Series nights ever.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Chris O’Meara/AP/Shutterstock (13403685u) Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve (27) celebrates with third baseman Alex Bregman (2) after defeating the Tampa Bay Rays during a baseball game, in St. Petersburg, Fla Astros Rays Baseball, St. Petersburg, United States – 19 Sep 2022

Richard Justice: Justin Verlander gets his chance after the Astros deliver one of the most magical World Series nights ever.

   Justin Verlander’s career needs no final line of confirmation. That’s not what his start tonight in Game 5 of the 2022 World Series is about. He long ago punched his ticket into the Hall of Fame and will be forever remembered as one of the best there ever was.

   His Astros legacy is likewise secure. He joined a limping first-place team in 2017 and re-energized it. The Astros do not win that World Series without him.

   “He changed a lot of things when he walked through that door,” catcher Brian McCann would say later. “And we were already really good.”

   At 39, Verlander is putting the finishing touches on one of his finest seasons, one that will make him just the 11th pitcher in history to win at least three Cy Young Awards.

   Still, the stakes are enormous in Game 5 in what could be Verlander’s final start for the Astros. He is winless in eight previous World Series starts (0-6, 6.07 ERA), but if he is at his best, the Astros will return to Houston one victory from winning another World Series. As stakes go, it does not get much higher than that.

   Verlander will be on center stage after the Astros picked themselves off the mat and won Game 4 by the score of 5-0 on Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park.

   They did this after getting pasted 7-0 in Game 3 on Tuesday, a defeat so ugly that it raised all sorts of questions about the lineup, Dusty Baker’s handling of his pitching staff and about how the Phillies might just be on one of these magical rides destined to end in a parade.

   The Astros did not just answer that challenge. They answered it emphatically, magically thanks to one of the greatest pitching performances in World Series history.

   Cristian Javier and three relievers combined on the second no-hitter in the Fall Classic’s 118-year history. He was brilliant for six innings, with a sneaky fastball and an unhittable slider that silenced the Phillies from the get-go.

   This game offered a window into the Astros’ genius and how they have sustained success. Javier was a $10,000 signing out of the Dominican Republic. He was followed by a $40,000 signee (Bryan Abreu) and a pair of trade deadline acquisitions, Rafael Montero and Ryan Pressly, that the Astros have helped turn into dominant late-inning arms.

    At 25, Javier would be a No. 1 or 2 starter on most teams. But the Astros are silly deep in pitching, and Javier had not pitched in 11 days when he stepped onto the mound.

   He did it the old-fashioned way. Of his 96 pitches over six no-hit innings, 70 were fastballs. He got six of his nine strikeouts on fastballs against an offense that feasts on the hard stuff. Philadelphia’s top five in the order—Kyle Schwarber, Rhys Hoskins, J.T. Realmuto, Bryce Harper and Nick Castellanos—was 0 for 16 with nine strikeouts.

   “He is ridiculous,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said of Javier in a text message to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Television and The Athletic during the game. “Maybe the best pitcher on both rosters.”

   Had the Astros lost Game 4, they would have been in a nearly unsurmountable 3-1 hole, and Verlander would have been pitching just to keep his team from elimination.

   The Phillies had been 6-0 at Citizens Bank Park in the postseason and outscored opponents 42-15. But they got just two runners into scoring position in Game 4.

   Javier’s delivery is classically smooth and looks effortless. His fastball has what hitters call “late life.”

   “Spin rate,” Harper said. “His 93 (mph) looks like 97. The slider’s good. He’s good.”

   In three appearances this postseason, Javier has allowed one earned run in 12 2/3 innings. His .051 opponent batting average is the second-lowest in a single postseason among pitchers with at least 10 innings. Only Don Larsen, who pitched a perfect game in 1956, had a lower one (.031).

   “I think that’s the best fastball in baseball right now,” Astros catcher Christian Vázquez said. “The electricity of that fastball, you don’t care if it’s 92, 93, 94 (mph). A lot of swing and miss and foul balls.”

   The Phillies had an expected batting average of .081 (a number based on strikeouts and quality of contact). That’s the lowest in a postseason game since Statcast was born in 2015.

   In Javier’s last six starts, including the regular season, he’s 5-0 with a 0.00 ERA with 11 walks and 43 strikeouts in 34 1/3 innings.

   “He’s the most underrated pitcher in the league,” Pressly said.

   Game 5 will begin with the Astros having not allowed a hit in 11 innings, tied with the 1939 Yankees for the longest such streak in a World Series.

   All of this having come 24 hours after the Phillies became the first team to hit five home runs in a single World Series contest. 

   Baseball, friends, is weird and wonderful.

   “You get slapped in the face yesterday and go back today and make a statement,” Pressly said. “You try to have the mind of the goldfish in this game. You try not to think about anything. You just want to go out there and try to produce and put a ‘W’ in the column.”

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