HOUSTON -- Justin Verlander was one strike away from a six-pitch first inning in the early minutes of Thursday's 8-2 victory over the Red Sox in Game 1 of the American League Division Series presented by Doosan.
The Astros right-hander reared back and fired his fastest pitch yet to Andrew Benintendi, a 96.9 mph offering that the Boston rookie fouled off. It continued like this, the at-bat extending to 11 pitches, before pitcher outlasted hitter.
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Verlander's strikeout of Benintendi, though perhaps just a footnote in the Astros' opening-game victory in this best-of-five series, quietly mirrored the impact of his arrival in Houston five weeks ago.
"That really rejuvenated us, when he came on board," Astros shortstop Alex Bregman said. "Just his presence, him being in here, it's meant everything. He's special, man."
Following Verlander's 15-pitch inning to christen the highly anticipated showdown with lefty Chris Sale, Bregman and the Astros went to work in his defense. Bregman and Jose Altuve launched back-to-back home runs for an early lead that Verlander, who undoubtedly set the tone, would never relinquish.
The Red Sox succeeded in tying the Astros, 2-2, on Rafael Devers' sacrifice fly in the fourth inning, but only momentarily. Houston responded accordingly in the bottom half of the frame.
Verlander thus emerged as the victor in a battle between two of the game's best. Sale was rocked for seven runs and nine hits in his first career postseason outing, while Verlander twirled six innings of two-run ball to pick up his eighth career postseason win.
It was Verlander's 17th postseason start of an already celebrated career that includes a pair of hefty AL honors in the Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Award. And he pitched true to form, making good on manager A.J. Hinch's decision to throw him in Game 1, rather than incumbant team ace Dallas Keuchel.
Verlander's sterling efforts were helped along by a potent offensive performance that featured three home runs from AL batting champion Altuve in front of a roaring home crowd.
"The fans here were, I mean from the moment I walked out on the field, it seemed like it was just electric," Verlander said. "Honestly to the point where I'm like, OK, let's focus on what you got to do. Which is a great thing. It's a great feeling. The first inning getting out with no runs, it was the way you love to play the game of baseball."
The six-hit showing underscored Houston's aggressive actions at the waiver deadline, when Verlander agreed to a stunning, last-second blockbuster trade that ended a 13-year relationship with the Tigers and gave the Astros a pair of unquestioned No. 1 starters down the stretch.
Like the Astros, Verlander has been to the World Series, but he's never won one. Now they have each other to flip the script.
Verlander worked overtime to ensure this quest began properly, needing 52 pitches to get through the first three innings. He had thrown 79 by the time the fourth inning closed but required just eight in the fifth, with help from an inning-ending double play. His departure came at 99 pitches following a 1-2-3 sixth, with Verlander retiring six of his final seven batters. By that point, the Astros had a 5-2 lead, Verlander stranding five baserunners under his watch.
"I think the early part of the game showed us how difficult it is to conserve your pitches in a playoff atmosphere," Hinch said. "Both guys had to exert a lot of energy and a lot of pitches in the first third of the game.
"Rarely do you get this kind of premium matchup like this. It lived up to it because of how difficult our hitters and their hitters had to work in order to get something. I was proud of Verlander getting through the sixth inning because as the game was unfolding early, I didn't think either guy was going to last as deep as what we all anticipated. But our guy lasted a little longer."
If the Astros want to last a little longer, Verlander is equipped to help them to do so. He lowered his postseason ERA to 3.36 following his latest pitching clinic, which marked the eighth time in the postseason he's completed at least six innings with no more than two earned runs allowed.
"He's such a competitor," catcher Brian McCann said. "This is why you want him pitching at the top of the rotation."