What more could be asked of the man who has done just about everything?
Before he throws a pitch in Game 6 of the fall classic Tuesday night, Justin Verlander possesses a résumé fit for a Hall of Famer. The 36-year-old is the second player in major league history to earn an MVP, Rookie of the Year and Cy Young — an award in which he’s finished in the top-5 seven times, with another looming for 2019.
Over his 15-year career, Verlander has amassed more than 3,000 strikeouts and has made eight All-Star Games. He finally got a World Series ring on his third try when the Houston Astros claimed their first championship two years ago.
There isn’t much left on his MLB bingo card. He even got his first major league hit with the Detroit Tigers in 2014 after going 0-for-26 to start his career. He still doesn’t have a home run or an extra-base hit, though that’s probably not keeping him up at night.
But on Tuesday night in Game 6 of the World Series against the Washington Nationals, Verlander can accomplish something that’s eluded him for more than a decade. In six World Series starts, he is 0-5 with a 5.73 ERA, and his team has won just one of those games.
The Astros have an opportunity to clinch their second championship in three years in Game 6 at Minute Maid Park, and Verlander can get a World Series-sized monkey off his back in the process.
“Those are the moments that you dream about,” he told reporters before the Astros’ 7-1 victory in Game 5, which gave them a 3-2 series lead. “It's just having the opportunity to be out there and be on the mound hopefully in a scenario where we can close it out, that's everything I've dreamed of.”
In the Astros’ 12-3 loss in Game 2, an Anthony Rendon double put Verlander in a two-run hole before he could record an out. Kurt Suzuki led off the seventh with a tie-breaking homer, and a walk to the following batter, Victor Robles, ended Verlander’s night.
He was charged with four runs on seven hits and three walks over six innings. Afterward, he noted the Nationals’ preparedness and ability to make adjustments to different pitchers, especially when altering their approach with two strikes.
“In today's game you don't see it that often,” he said. “Honestly, it's kind of refreshing to see a couple of teams that don't swing and miss a ton, and change their approach based on the pitcher that's pitching against them.”
Tuesday night will be the 12th time in his career that Verlander will pitch twice in a postseason series. So far, he’s 6-5 in the second game of the series, with losses in his past four starts in that scenario. He mentioned that there’s more pressure on a pitcher to execute in those types of situations.
“I think those opposing guys, once they've seen you three, four at-bats, it's a little bit easier for them to make adjustments, and having seen your off-speed stuff and tracked it,” he said.
Compared to his stellar regular season, a different version of Verlander has shown up in October — which, even for a future Hall of Famer, isn’t uncommon. He’ll likely finish second in the Cy Young voting to teammate Gerrit Cole after putting together the second 20-win season of his career while reaching the 300-strikeout plateau for the first time.
But he’s accumulated a 4.15 ERA this postseason, highlighted by a 3.2-inning start in the ALDS against the Tampa Bay Rays in which he yielded four runs. He’s given up six homers in 30.1 innings, which was also a problem in the regular season — granted with a ball that many believe is physically different — where he gave up 36 long balls, the third-most among qualified pitchers.
He’s also averaging 3.26 walks per nine innings this postseason after posting a 1.70 BB/9 in the regular season. Those are the type of things that need to be corrected for Verlander, who owns a 3.15 ERA in potential series-clinching games, to get over this World Series hump.
Verlander will be going up against Stephen Strasburg on Tuesday night. Strasburg’s postseason problems were contrasting to Verlander’s until this year. He’s been at the front of a Nationals’ staff that couldn’t win a postseason series despite his 0.47 ERA in October entering this season.
But a victory in the wild-card game jump-started a change for the Nationals, and all the while Strasburg has held up his end of the bargain, retaining a 1.34 postseason ERA.
Strasburg’s success is a mix of the personal and team accomplishments that Verlander should hope will line up for him Tuesday. In terms of personal accolades, there isn’t much that Verlander hasn’t accomplished, and the Astros’ success over the past few seasons speaks for itself.
Verlander will likely have more opportunities to capture that elusive World Series victory beyond Tuesday night. He’s under contract for two more seasons with the Astros, who are expected to remain contenders even if Cole bolts in free agency. Recently, he was asked if he feels he can win 75 more games to get to 300 for his career.
“I think I can get pretty darn close,” he said. “I think the changes I've made the last few years to my body and how I pay attention to things is going to allow me to pitch deeper than I would have otherwise.
“It's definitely a goal of mine.”
His Hall of Fame credentials were likely validated this season, and he can put one more conversation to rest with a victory when it matters most Tuesday night.
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