HOUSTON -- From the first pitch Justin Verlander threw to Mariners rookie Julio Rodríguez on Tuesday at Minute Maid Park, the Astros’ ace looked more ineffective than he had all season long.
The American League Cy Young Award front-runner, Verlander opened Game 1 of the AL Division Series by walking Rodríguez and giving up a single to Ty France before even recording an out.
Verlander finished his start allowing six runs on 10 hits and one walk over four innings, striking out three. The six runs he surrendered are the second most he’s allowed in a postseason outing, after the seven he allowed in Game 1 of the 2006 World Series.
But on Tuesday, Houston came away with a comeback 8-7 victory, thanks to a three-run walk-off homer from Yordan Alvarez, despite Verlander notably lacking his best stuff. For the Astros to make a deep postseason run once again, they’ll need Verlander back to Cy Young form.
“[It was a] little bit of everything,” Verlander said of his outing. “[The Mariners] had a good approach. There is familiarity here. Obviously, I need to make better pitches, but also got to tip your cap. They hit some good pitches. That's the beauty of playoff baseball. We’re a team, we’re here to win. We won. Obviously, I have to do better next time out, but here we are with a Game 1 win, and I couldn’t be more happy.”
Despite the inefficient outing, it had been 1,078 days since Verlander pitched in a postseason game -- the last time being Game 6 of the 2019 World Series. After missing the ‘20 and ‘21 postseasons due to Tommy John surgery, the Astros’ ace finally returned to the playoff stage, and he made history while doing it.
Verlander passed Clayton Kershaw for the most strikeouts in postseason history with his 208th in the fourth inning, but Kershaw is scheduled to pitch Game 2 of the Dodgers’ National League Division Series against the Padres on Wednesday and could very well take back the lead.
Verlander entered the ALDS having thrown 11 consecutive scoreless innings to cap off a stellar regular season in which he posted an MLB-best 1.75 ERA, the lowest for a qualified AL pitcher in a non-shortened season since Pedro Martinez in 2000.
Despite setting the historic mark, Verlander allowed two hits, one walk and one run in the first inning against the Mariners. He had allowed only six first-inning runs in the regular season, four of which came in one game against Seattle on May 27.
Verlander’s struggles didn’t end there. He allowed three runs in the second inning and two more in the fourth before Bryan Abreu took over in the fifth. J.P. Crawford’s homer in the fourth was the first allowed by Verlander since July 23. The right-hander didn’t allow a home run over his final 58 2/3 regular-season innings.
The Mariners are the only team to score five or more earned runs off of Verlander this season, having tagged him for six earned runs on May 27.
Entering Tuesday, Verlander had a 2.34 ERA and 5-1 record against the Mariners this season, but Seattle got to the right-hander early and often, rocketing five battled balls at a 100+ mph exit velocity. The Astros' ace induced only seven whiffs on 81 pitches.
“What was up with Verlander? Maybe he was a little rusty,” manager Dusty Baker said. “He was barely missing on a number of pitches. I think those days off ... hurt our whole team. You see, we didn't wake up until the fifth, sixth inning, and this is a game of repetition and a game of action. You can practice all you want to. There's nothing, no substitute for game action. So that's not an excuse, but I can sort of feel it and see it.”
As the Astros found themselves in an unusual hole with Verlander on the mound, the offense slowly chipped away at the Mariners’ lead throughout the game, culminating in the walk-off homer from Alvarez.
Alvarez said in a way, it felt great to be able to save Verlander’s day.
“[It was a] very emotional, very special moment,” Alvarez said. “Verlander didn't have the greatest outing, didn't have the outing that we're used to seeing from him. But it's just very special that I was able to help the team win.”