Despite early struggles, Verlander comes out on top in 'chess match'

October 8th, 2023

HOUSTON -- is no stranger to Game 1 starts.

His outing on Saturday afternoon against the Twins in the American League Division Series was the 13th of his career -- and he might have learned a thing or two from the previous 12.

Verlander’s six-inning scoreless start put Houston in the drivers’ seat with a 6-4 win over Minnesota at Minute Maid Park.

It didn’t start the way Verlander might have envisioned.

“You come up with a game plan [for Game 1], and as the famous saying goes, 'the best-laid plans ... '” Verlander said on Friday. “You just go out there and see what their approach is and try to adjust, and that's the chess match that's happening.”

But Verlander has shown he can outmaneuver his opponents on the mound. In his first five Game 1 starts from 2011-’16, Verlander's team went 1-4. Since joining the Astros in ‘17, however, the team is 7-1 when Verlander is starting the first game of a postseason series. The Astros improved to 8-0 in Game 1 of an ALDS, including five Verlander starts.

Against the Twins’ young lineup, Verlander adjusted his way through the “chess match” despite struggling early.

He allowed six of Minnesota’s first 10 batters to reach base, including the leadoff hitter in each of the first three innings. The Twins refused to swing and miss at a breaking ball in the first frame -- earning nine balls and a hit on 12 combined sliders and curveballs.

“Early, he was forcing his breaking ball,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “His breaking ball, he couldn't get it over. He got in trouble a couple times early, but if you don't get J.V. early, he usually finds his groove.”

Two key 6-4-3 double play ground balls helped Verlander escape the early traffic and hold the Twins to 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position.

And once he found his groove, Minnesota found itself one move behind.

Verlander didn’t allow a hit to his last 14 batters. He collected six strikeouts and kept the Twins off balance by throwing fewer fastballs. Most importantly, the right-hander regained some of the bite on his slider to induce eight whiffs and the spin on his curveball to toss them in there for six called strikes.

“You just adapt and do whatever you can to be successful,” Verlander said. “In my career I've changed drastically multiple times. So I think what feels really good is that, when you start off struggling and are able to make some adjustments and find it, and the third, fourth, and fifth, [I] obviously was able to have some things click and make some better pitches and get some easier outs.

“He definitely found himself and found the mix that he's looking for,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He's a guy that, if he has something that he doesn't like, he'll go away from it, and he'll go to what feels good on that day. I think at some points he was going to the fastball up in certain points where maybe he thought we were looking more off-speed.”

As Verlander (17 career postseason wins) nears Andy Pettitte (19) for first on the all-time playoff wins list, the Astros' ace says it’s not a goal of his to pass Pettitte. But if Verlander does, his improvements in Game 1's will be a huge reason why.

“Incredible,” said Yordan Alvarez, who smashed two home runs to back Verlander. “That's what we needed from J.V.”