BOSTON -- Going off script, the Astros beckoned for Justin Verlander's services in the middle innings of Game 4 on Monday, throwing him into a tense tilt opposite a familiar face at Fenway Park.
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It was always assumed that Verlander and Red Sox lefty Chris Sale would meet again -- in Game 5, if the best-of-five American League Division Series presented by Doosan went that far. But it didn't, and now Verlander will start Game 2 of the AL Championship Series presented by Camping World against the Yankees on Saturday.
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Yet here were two aces, staged under a light rain, each asked to eat up crucial innings out of the bullpen in what would morph into a wild affair.
Verlander, who waived his no-trade clause to facilitate a Tigers-Astros deal just seconds before the Aug. 31 waiver Trade Deadline, emerged the victor in his first Major League relief appearance, picking up the win in a narrow 5-4 victory that sent the Astros to their first American League Championship Series presented by Camping World. Sale was saddled with the loss, his lone mistake pitch simply untimelier than the one Verlander made.
The results read like Game 1. The nuances of what led to them told a new tale.
"I've battled against that guy a lot over my career," Verlander said. "I have a lot of respect for him and what he does, the way he goes about his business, the pitcher that he is. I appreciate the battle that him and I had today. Even though it wasn't the normal starting one, it was different in its own nature. When all is said and done, it was a lot of fun."
Never before had Verlander pitched as a reliever, not in any phase of his life, he claims -- including 402 Major League appearances spanning the regular and postseason. But with the potentially uncooperative and unpredictable doings of Mother Nature threatening to halt, or even postpone, Game 4, Astros manager A.J. Hinch knew he needed a backup plan for his backup plan.
Enter Verlander, who readied to take the ball should Hinch require a second starter of sorts if the game was stilled by a prolonged delay. The latter never happened. Still, Hinch called on the 10-year veteran, wanting someone to bridge the gap between right-hander Charlie Morton, who would labor through 4 1/3 innings, and his closer, Ken Giles.
"When I saw him down there in the bullpen," Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said, "it was like, 'Let's win this game. We've got our horse going, they've got theirs, let's find a way to win the game.'"
Following Morton's one-out walk to Xander Bogaerts in the fifth, Andrew Benintendi and Mookie Betts loomed for Boston.
"They knew I was good [to pitch], so they said, 'Go down there and be ready for Betts,'" Verlander said. "Then they said, 'Can you get Benintendi?' and I said, 'Sure.' And that didn't work out so well."
Verlander's Astros led, 2-1, when he entered the scene. Five pitches later, Verlander's Astros trailed.
Facing Benintendi, Verlander unleashed a 2-2 slider that the Red Sox rookie sent soaring down the right-field line for a go-ahead two-run homer.
"He's been doing the same routine for 13 years, but he comes in and has the emotion of the home run, and just like that, kind of a lesser man might have caved in that situation because of the big moment, waking up the crowd, Benintendi circling the bases," Hinch said.
Except Verlander, to the backdrop of a steady "Jus-tin" chant by a taunting crowd, settled down. He finished the inning and returned to the dugout with this thought: "'Hit the reset button, let's go and try to get some outs, keep your team in the ballgame.' That's all I can do at that point. I'm not coming out of the game. He's not taking me out. So my job now is to keep the game close."
Verlander got through the seventh -- and 2 2/3 innings in total -- without yielding another run in a 40-pitch display, and the Astros struck for two runs in the eighth for a 4-3 lead, sending Sale, who surrendered a game-tying home run to Bregman, out of the game.
By the end of a day in which nothing felt right for the routine-oriented Verlander, all was right.
"It was a really hard decision for me to make coming here," he said. "A lot of emotions went into it, and to be able to celebrate with these guys after winning the first round, the further removed I get from the situation, the more I realize it was the right decision for me, and to be a part of a clubhouse like this and a winning series in the playoffs, it makes me feel really good."