Healthy Verlander wraps up spring slate

April 3rd, 2022

WEST PALM, BEACH, Fla. -- The No. 1 takeaway from the spring for pitcher Justin Verlander is that he will enter the regular season completely healthy. Verlander threw five innings in Sunday’s 9-6 loss to the Nationals, giving up two runs on six hits while striking out five and throwing 77 pitches.

Verlander’s first start of the regular season -- and first in any game that counts since July 24, 2020 -- will come on Saturday against the Angels in Anaheim. After missing all of last season following Tommy John surgery, he returned to make four Grapefruit League starts, striking out 15 batters, allowing 11 hits, two runs and four walks in 13 2/3 innings.

“I was able to get through it healthy,” he said. “There’s still some stuff to work on. I’m looking at it two different ways, but definitely pleased with the health part, though.”

Verlander, 39, said he would still like to get his timing down better but is happy with his secondary pitches. He was throwing 95-96 mph with his fastball early in the game and still sitting at 95 with the heater in his final inning of work. In addition to staying healthy, getting adjusted to his between-starts routine has been a focus.

“That’s the reason I started getting on a five-day [throwing routine] before spring, just to get used to it and get in the routine,” he said. “Now is the time that hopefully, my body is used to the five-man rotation, five- or six-day routine and just try to make it as normal as possible.”

In his last full healthy season in 2019, Verlander enjoyed one of the best years of his career en route to his second career Cy Young Award. He made 34 starts and went 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA and a 0.80 WHIP in 223 innings. He threw his third career no-hitter and reached 3,000 career strikeouts while whiffing 300 in a season for the first time.

The Astros signed him to a one-year, $25 million contract prior to the lockout, with an option for 2023.

'Pen taking shape
The Astros have all but set their 28-man roster at camp, one day before they play their final Grapefruit League game of year on Monday.

Astros manager Dusty Baker said Sunday the team informed right-handers Bryan Abreu and Ronel Blanco they had made the bullpen, and non-roster lefties Adam Morgan and Zac Rosscup -- both of whom were competing for a spot -- were reassigned to Triple-A.

Blanco, who was the closer last year at Triple-A, impressed this spring with his control and velocity after pitching well in winter ball. He will have to be added to the 40-man roster, so a corresponding roster move is needed.

“We thought he was one of the best 28,” Baker said. “I’ve liked him, and some of the other people in the organization have liked him from what we’ve seen before. We saw some progress, and you go to winter ball and don’t give up anything -- there’s more pressure in winter ball than there is here -- and he didn’t give up anything here.”

The lone remaining decision is solidifying the status of veteran reliever Rafael Montero, who reported late to camp because of visa issues but was throwing in the Dominican Republic. He made his first Grapefruit League appearance in the seventh inning on Sunday against the Nationals and struggled. The righty gave up two runs on three hits and a walk and was only able to record one out.

Baker wanted to carry two lefties but will have only one with Blake Taylor. Morgan and Rosscup both signed late and haven’t pitched enough, which is why they are starting the season in Triple-A.

Abreu will make his second consecutive Opening Day roster. Brandon Bielak appeared to be headed for a roster spot, but the Astros want him in the rotation in Triple-A. The Astros optioned Bielak and Seth Martinez to Triple-A.

“[With] this short spring, we’re going to need some starts [by relievers],” Baker said. “[Bielak] and [Peter] Solomon needed to go down to get their length back.”

Valdez prepared to face Ohtani, Angels on Opening Day
Set to make his first career Opening Day start on Thursday against the Angels in Anaheim, Astros lefty Framber Valdez said he’s looking forward to facing reigning American League Most Valuable Player Shohei Ohtani. He’ll start the game for the Angels and likely face Valdez when he bats, as well.

“Not to take anything away from him, we know he’s the MVP,” Valdez said. “He’s done a great job in the past, but I’ve worked really hard, as well, to be able to get the job done against him and against the Angels and put the team in position to win.”

Valdez missed the first two months of last season with a fractured left ring finger before going 11-6 with a 3.14 ERA in 22 starts.