Verlander's season debut appears to be on the horizon

April 15th, 2024

HOUSTON -- 's long-awaited season debut could come for the Astros this weekend against the Nationals in Washington, D.C., assuming his bullpen session Tuesday goes off without a hitch. Verlander threw four innings Saturday for Double-A Corpus Christi in his final Minor League rehab start and said Monday he had checked all the boxes he wanted to check in terms of his rehab.

“The first thing is health and I came out of it feeling good,” he said. “Obviously, I have some stuff to work on pitching-wise, but that’s kind of what Spring Training is for and what rehab starts are for. I felt better last time than I did the [rehab start] before, so just keep building on that, and like I always do, kind of work on stuff in the bullpen in between and keep trying to make it click.”

The Astros have five starting pitchers on the injured list, so getting Verlander back would be the first step to making the rotation whole again. Lefty Framber Valdez (sore elbow) could return shortly after Verlander.

“He feels good, he feels confident,” manager Joe Espada said of Verlander. “He wants to contribute, and he knows that we need him on the mound, we need his presence, and right now, he’s right where he needs to be.”

The Astros announced on March 5 that Verlander wouldn’t be ready for the start of the regular season and would begin the season on the injured list after a shoulder issue put him behind prior to the start of camp. He said the ultimate decision on whether he comes off the IL this weekend is up to the Astros.

“I think pitch-count wise, it’s pretty close, and health-wise, I bounced back all the ways I would have liked to have seen,” he said. “Like we talked about earlier at length, some of the things that have been difficult for me to do are becoming easier and easier. I feel like I checked all the boxes that need to be checked, and I do feel I’m ready to step on the mound again.”

Verlander threw 78 pitches Saturday night for Corpus Christi at Frisco, giving up six runs (five earned) on seven hits in four innings. He struck out three batters and walked one. On April 7 at Triple-A Sugar Land, he allowed seven runs (six earned) on seven hits and one walk in three-plus innings, throwing 65 pitches in his first rehab game.

Gauging his readiness to pitch in a big league game based on the results of a rehab start is difficult for a veteran pitcher like Verlander, whose No. 1 goal is to get his work in. Minor League hitters see it as a chance to measure themselves against one of the best pitchers of this generation.

“You know a lot of these guys are really aggressive,” he said. “It’s kind of notorious to get hit around a little bit when you go make rehab starts. I think you have to take a realistic view of things. I wasn’t as deceptive as I would like to be and that’s something you can kind of tell, I think. Really, [it's] the same thing you use Spring Training for.”

Verlander went 7-3 with a 3.31 ERA in 11 regular-season starts (68 innings) after the Mets traded him to Houston in July, and he also made three postseason starts before the Astros were eliminated by the Rangers in the American League Championship Series.

The three-time Cy Young Award winner is entering the second season of a two-year deal he signed with the Mets during the 2022 offseason. The contract contains a $35 million vesting option for 2025 that is triggered if Verlander throws 140 innings this season. New York will pay half of the option if it vests.