Verlander on Game 1 loss: Been there, overcome that

October 16th, 2023

HOUSTON -- A mounted television flickered overhead as navigated the darkened catacombs outside the Astros’ clubhouse late Sunday evening, absorbing his club’s 2-0 loss in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park.

As commentary spilled from the screen, a statistical nugget voiced by one of the on-air personalities stuck with Verlander: Since the ALCS moved to a best-of-seven format in 1985, 22 of the 37 teams to win Game 1 have moved on to win the series. That’s 59.5 percent, not much worse than a coin flip.  

“We lost Game 1 in the World Series last year. We've lost Game 1 of some playoff series before,” Verlander said. “And that's the great thing about this team. Obviously, nobody is sitting in the locker room right now happy. But it's very matter-of-fact: ‘OK, we just got punched. How do you answer?’”

That was essentially how Verlander viewed his 14th career Game 1 start, most all time, and his 36th career postseason start (second only to Andy Pettitte’s 46). He’d pitched well enough to win, permitting two runs over 6 1/3 innings, though he could not make Texas buckle as in some of his best performances.

“They've been a prodigious offense all season long, and you know your work is cut out for you,” Verlander said. “A lineup like that is so deep that you can't focus on a pocket of hitters and say, ‘If I don't let them beat me, I'll be good.’ Every one of their guys has the opportunity to beat you. You've got to be on your game, one through nine. And if you're not, they'll make you pay.”

Coming off six scoreless innings in Game 1 of the AL Division Series against the Twins, Verlander permitted Jonah Heim’s run-scoring single in the second inning. That was a frame in which the right-hander allowed three hits and one walk, yet he limited damage by getting Marcus Semien to pop out with the bases loaded.

Verlander finished with five strikeouts, but he registered none through four innings -- the first time that had happened to him since 2015. He generated only one swing and miss through the first five frames.

“It’s been our approach all postseason to just get on the heater and try to put it in play,” Heim said. “We know he has an amazing extension and vert [vertical break/rise]. It’s our job to just get on top of it the best we can, and that was kind of the game plan.”

Verlander’s stuff -- which he described as “so-so” -- seemed to improve as the game progressed. No. 9 hitter Leody Taveras pounced on a hanging fifth-inning slider for a solo home run. Astros manager Dusty Baker said he thought that was the only one of Verlander’s 36 Game 1 sliders that lacked bite.

“I was a bit erratic the first couple of innings, especially [with] fastball control,” Verlander said. “I thought it cleaned up as the game went along. I started finding my groove there in the last few innings. One bad pitch resulted in another run to Taveras there.”

Mostly, Verlander was outpitched by Rangers starter Jordan Montgomery -- the first time this postseason that both starters have gone at least six innings.

“They say good pitching beats good hitting, but when you don’t hit, everybody wants to know what’s wrong,” Baker said. “There’s not a whole bunch to say. [Montgomery] threw a real good game against us.”

Verlander said that he typically does not watch the Astros when they’re at bat, preferring to use a quiet area of the tunnel between the dugout and clubhouse to calm down and focus his thoughts. He could tell by the brief half-innings, though, that Montgomery was giving the hitters fits.

“Jordan pitched incredibly well,” Verlander said. “With the way the innings were going, obviously he was on his game and did a great job. Sometimes you have to tip your cap and say, ‘All right, get them tomorrow.’”