Routine fly balls that aren't hit particularly well often turn into home runs, and as frustrating as that can be for pitchers, anyone who has experienced Minute Maid Park accepted that it's fair for both sides -- especially for the home team, which gets to aim for the short porch 81 games a year.
Unfortunately for Houston, the only team that took advantage of the Crawford Boxes on Thursday was the Red Sox, who clinched the American League pennant by handing the Astros a 4-1 defeat in Game 5 of the AL Championship Series thanks to a largely unhittable starting pitcher in David Price, but also to an ability to take advantage of the 315-foot left-field line that defines the shallowest home run territory in the Majors.
"It's funny we're playing the Red Sox," Verlander said with a wry smile. "The only two places where those are hits are here and Fenway."
Boston's decisive blow arrived in the sixth inning off the bat of the left-handed-hitting Rafael Devers. The Red Sox, up 1-0, had runners at first and third with no outs when Devers connected with Verlander's first offering -- a 98.2-mph fastball -- and the ball traveled a projected 359 feet, according to Statcast™, landing in the first row of the Crawford Boxes.
Boston's slim one-run lead, built on J.D. Martinez's homer in the third inning, turned into a commanding four-run advantage.
"It was a gut punch," Astros manager AJ Hinch said of Devers' home run. "Because a lot of [Verlander's] home runs [allowed] this year were those balls that creeped into the Crawford Boxes. That's a little bit of bad luck in the ballpark, and a really good at-bat by Devers. He got the barrel to it, and he's a strong kid. The ball was elevated, and the ball carries to the right part of park, and that's baseball, that's the game."
Verlander checked the exit velocity after the inning and saw the homer left Devers' bat at 101.5 mph, slower than Verlander expected.
"It wasn't hit as good as I thought," Verlander said. "But he hit it well."
The true blow, from Verlander's view, was Mitch Moreland's leadoff double that set up the big inning. That ball also hung up and headed toward left field, but it fell just short of clearing the wall. Left fielder Tony Kemp, known for his acrobatic catches, couldn't leap high enough, as the ball bounced off the wall before entering his glove.
Ian Kinsler, Verlander's former Tigers teammate, followed with a base hit to right field, which moved Moreland to third base and set up Devers' first home run of the postseason.
"I saw Tony with the jump, and I was having flashbacks of the catch he made just a couple days ago," Verlander said. "I was hoping for that, especially from the leadoff spot. Then getting past Kins is tough. He was able to punch one through the right side, and then it's first and third. A 330-foot popup to left, and that's all she wrote."
"Once it got halfway there, I knew it was gone," Kemp said. "Unfortunately, no one else knew except me. I knew the ball was gone."
Verlander was more matter-of-fact than melancholy when addressing reporters after the Astros' season-ending loss. The general feeling in the clubhouse was that Houston was simply outplayed by Boston and bested by a nearly unhittable Price.
Entering the game, Verlander was unquestionably the Astros' best option in their effort to push the series back to Boston for Game 6.
The veteran right-hander, making his 23rd career postseason start, had a 24-inning scoreless streak in postseason elimination games entering Thursday that spanned three outings: Game 6 of the ALCS with the Astros in 2017, and two that came with the Tigers, both against the A's: Game 5 of the AL Division Series in 2013, and Game 5 of the 2012 ALDS.
Verlander also compiled a 2.52 ERA and struck out 290 over 34 regular-season starts, making him a top candidate to win the AL Cy Young Award.
Houston was confident heading into Game 5, but the Astros were also realistic about their chances to come back from a 3-1 deficit in a best-of-seven series with a team that won 108 games in the regular season.
"They have a great lineup," Verlander said. "If you don't execute, they're going to find ways to hurt you. Four runs in a nine-inning ballgame, that's not a ton. We had some success against them -- just not quite enough. Honestly, I thought it was a pretty good series. We had a chance there in the ninth inning almost every game."