Verlander's latest gem cashes $25 million option for '23

August 5th, 2022

CLEVELAND -- Justin Verlander’s season stats shine like a work of art.

His 15-3 record is dazzling. His 1.73 ERA is league-leading. His 0.85 WHIP is minuscule. And his 130 innings pitched are impressive -- and might end up being the most important in the grand scheme of things.

With his six-inning scoreless start in Houston’s 6-0 win over Cleveland on Thursday, Verlander reached that 130 innings mark, triggering his $25 million player option for 2023. And while Verlander and the Astros still have a long way to go before they can focus on next season, the player option being picked up is a huge step forward for the 39-year-old hurler who is putting together a comeback season for the ages.

“I wasn't pitching to get to 130 innings,” Verlander said after the game. “When we we were doing the contract, [Astros owner] Jim [Crane] told me they wanted 130 innings for my player option. I was asking for a straight player option and they said they’d like 130 innings, and that was that. I thought that was a very fair number the way I like to pitch.”

Wednesday’s start was another example of how Verlander is reclaiming his title as one of the best pitchers in baseball. While he only tallied five strikeouts -- a number lower than his season average of 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings -- he only allowed three baserunners, none of whom made it past first base.

In case his dominance could have been any more impressive, consider that he did it at a ballpark where he’s historically struggled. Entering play on Thursday, Verlander had a 5.34 ERA at Progressive Field, the highest mark in his career at any stadium he’s pitched in more than three times.

“Is it still above five?” Verlander jokingly asked after making his start. “I’ve got some demons to exorcise here. These guys tormented me for a while. It always seemed like I had a good game going and then something would happen to make it go sideways.”

Verlander’s fastball was electric as always -- he topped out at 97.1 mph in the fourth inning -- but his curveball was just as sharp, as he recorded 10 whiffs and called strikes on the pitch. With his club in the middle of an 18-games-in-17-days stretch, Astros manager Dusty Baker was appreciative of Verlander’s dominance.

“He’s kind of running on empty like everybody. These guys are a little spent. … He was very good," Baker said.

Verlander’s start was backed up by the bottom of the Astros' lineup, more specifically No. 7 hitter Chas McCormick and No. 9 hitter Martín Maldonado, both of whom had a homer and three RBIs. After making a pregame shift from left field to right due to Kyle Tucker being a late scratch with an illness, McCormick responded with his best game of the season, finishing with three hits to tie his season high.

“I just know when Verlander’s on the hill I’ve got to lock it in,” he said. “I didn’t really feel too good in my first two at-bats … but then I started to feel good. I’m happy we did a good job as a team.”

Maldonado followed McCormick’s big hits with two of his own, as he chased McCormick’s fifth-inning RBI single with a two-run double before going deep shortly after McCormick in the seventh inning.

“It felt good to help the team win,” Maldonado said. “We know we're going to have men on base when we bat.”

And as for catching the mighty Verlander?

“It’s fun to be behind the plate for him,” Maldonado said with a laugh.

While reaching the 130 inning mark is a personal accomplishment two years in the making for Verlander, he’s not letting it distract him from the bigger goal at hand: bringing another World Series to Houston.

“By no means am I ever pitching just to get to 130 innings … that’s not why I play the game; that’s not why I pitch,” he said.