By Frank Pingue
HOUSTON (Reuters) - The Houston Astros acquired Justin Verlander in the hopes that he would be the final piece to their World Series puzzle and now the veteran right-hander will get a chance to lead his team to a maiden championship.
Houston lead the Los Angeles Dodgers 3-2 in the best-of-seven World Series and will just happen to have the postseason's hottest pitcher on the mound when the Fall Classic resumes on the West Coast on Tuesday.
"These are what it's all about," said Verlander. "These are the moments that you want to be a part of as a baseball player. It's everything you could ask for."
Verlander, who has yet to win a World Series, has already exceeded expectations when the Astros acquired him a mere minutes before the trade deadline at the end of August.
The 34-year-old former ace of the Detroit Tigers staff has started nine games for the Astros over the last two months and won them all. He even pitched once in relief, and Houston won that one, too.
Astros manager A.J. Hinch, when asked if Verlander fits into his description of a "big-game pitcher", said the co-ace of his staff fits into a lot of categories given an ability to block out distractions and execute pitches no matter the stage.
"I like more calling these guys big-time pitchers before the game, because that's what we expect. We expect them to prepare the same. We expect them to show up ready to play. We expect them to produce the executed pitches," said Hinch.
"When you can do that on this kind of stage you're called a big-time pitcher regardless of your performance. But oftentimes these guys step up and deliver big-time results, too."
Verlander is one of just three active players on the Astros and Dodgers rosters with previous World Series experience. He reached the Fall Classic twice with Detroit in 2006 and 2012 but did not pitch particularly well either time.
But the six-time All-Star and former Cy Young Award winner as the American League's best pitcher has since seemingly always managed to find another gear in pressure-packed situations.
Verlander did just that in the American League Championship Series when, with the Astros facing elimination, he stepped up to the challenge by pitching seven shutout innings in a 7-1 victory that forced a decisive seventh game.
He attributes part of his success to being able to manage his intensity level during the regular season when the stakes are not as high and therefore allowing him to find another gear come the postseason.
"You can't focus that much mental energy and physical drain on hanging on every single pitch that way and the crowd and the intensity, that it all encompasses, you just can't do that every single day out for 34, 35 starts," said Verlander.
"But as soon as the postseason starts you're living or dying on every single pitch, and your whole team is living or dying on every single pitch. It changes everything."
(Reporting by Frank Pingue; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)