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Opening Day never gets old for Verlander

@brianmctaggart
July 19, 2020

HOUSTON -- This will be an Opening Day start unlike any other for Astros ace Justin Verlander. There will be no buzz rolling through the crowd as he walks to the mound at Minute Maid Park and no high-fives from teammates when he heads back to the dugout, either. That’s

HOUSTON -- This will be an Opening Day start unlike any other for Astros ace Justin Verlander. There will be no buzz rolling through the crowd as he walks to the mound at Minute Maid Park and no high-fives from teammates when he heads back to the dugout, either.

That’s life when you’re playing sports during the coronavirus pandemic, but the unusual circumstances won’t diminish what taking the ball on Opening Day means for Verlander. The 37-year-old will make his 12th Opening Day start -- third for the Astros -- in Friday’s regular-season opener against the Mariners at Minute Maid Park.

“I’m honored and very excited to take the ball on Opening Day,” Verlander said after throwing 74 pitches in five innings of one-run ball in Sunday’s intrasquad game at Minute Maid Park. “It’s a tradition that goes back to the beginning of time in baseball. No matter how many times I do it, each one is unique and special. I’m honored and extremely happy to have that chance.”

Verlander’s first Opening Day start came for the Tigers in 2008, when he was 24 years old. He started seven openers in a row and nine of 10 for Detroit before being dealt to the Astros in 2017. Since then he’s won another Cy Young Award, threw his third no-hitter and won a World Series ring.

The streak of Opening Day starts nearly came to a halt when Verlander injured his lat in the spring, an injury that led to groin surgery in mid-March. He was expected to need as many as two months to recover before the pandemic shut down the sport, giving him plenty of time to heal.

“Each [Opening Day start] is unique, but you can kind of segment them into kind of like three or four parts in my career -- where I was very young, where I was in my prime to when I wasn’t and hurt, and to now,” he said.

On Sunday, Verlander gave up only a homer to Jack Mayfield on his evolving changeup but has looked extremely sharp in camp. The biggest thing for him was pitching three times on five days of rest and having his body respond.

“I think crossing the hurdle of game speed with my groin and my lat, that’s something I hadn’t replicated yet,” he said. “To be able to go out here and go 100 percent effort and not have any setbacks, I think that was the biggest hurdle.”

Verlander has made at least 30 starts in 13 of the last 14 seasons and enters this year having thrown more innings than any active pitcher (2,982). He’s likely to make only 11 or 12 starts this year in a 60-game season, which means knowing how far to push himself will be vital. So will communication with manager Dusty Baker.

“I don’t think because it’s 11 [starts] that means you go out and throw 120 pitches every start,” he said. “We still have to recover and come back out there every five days. I would expect the regular season, for myself, would be pretty normal, and it would just feel more intense like when you’re in August and September in the regular season and you’re fighting for a playoff berth.”

Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.