CLEVELAND -- American League manager Alex Cora’s decision to start Astros right-hander Justin Verlander in tonight’s All-Star Game presented by Mastercard might be the easiest that he’ll have all season. Their connection is both personal and professional.
“What he did for us in Houston was amazing,” Cora said. “He was the reason we won the World Series that year.”
• All-Star Game presented by Mastercard: Tonight, 6:30 CT on FOX
As explanations go, it doesn’t get any simpler than that. Cora was the Astros bench coach in 2017 when Verlander was acquired in a seconds-before-deadline Aug. 31 trade with the Tigers.
Verlander transformed a really good team into a great one by having one of the best two months of a career already on a clear Hall of Fame trajectory. Cora was hired to manage the Red Sox a few weeks after that World Series, and he understands that Verlander’s dominance may have played a role in that, too.
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Cora led the Red Sox to a World Series title of his own last season and is happy to have the opportunity to give Verlander, an eight-time All-Star, his second starting assignment.
“He's getting better,” Cora said. “You know, the work that he puts in, that you people don't see. ... He got there to Houston, and he bought into the concept, and he's getting better. And it's a pleasure for me to give him the ball and start everything off.”
Verlander most recently pitched on Friday, so three days of rest lines him up to pitch at least an inning tonight. At 36 years old, he’s having one of his best seasons, leading MLB in WHIP (0.81) and opponent batting average (.168) while ranking second in the AL in innings (126 2/3) and tied for second in strikeouts (153). His 2.98 ERA is third in the AL.
“It's an honor," Verlander said of his starting nod. “Alex called me after my last start, and anytime you get the opportunity to represent not only yourself, but your organization, the American League, Major League Baseball, it's such an honor.”
Verlander was an All-Star in six of his first seven full seasons, all with the Tigers. He struggled with shoulder issues for a time after that, and there might have been a time if he wondered if his best days are behind him.
Instead, he has reinvented himself to be become better than ever. In 58 regular-season starts for the Astros, he’s 31-13 with a dazzling 2.64 ERA and 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings. This is his second All-Star selection after going six seasons without one.
“And I don't take these games for granted,” he said. “I had the opportunity to go a few years in a row when I was younger. And then I got hurt and missed a few years in a row, and I think it made me appreciate being an All-Star all the more.”
The durable veteran has pitched at least seven innings in nine of his past 11 starts, and 12 overall. And although he has allowed 26 home runs (tops in MLB), the Astros have won 13 of his 19 outings. He has been a dependable innings eater for a thin rotation.
Now, about that other All-Star start. That was in 2012 in Kansas City, when Verlander allowed five runs, four hits and two walks (with two strikeouts) in a one-inning stint of a game the AL lost, 8-0. Since then, the AL has won six straight.
“I think my mindset has changed a little bit,” Verlander said. “I kind of halfway blame it on Prince Fielder. He was at first base, and he kept whispering at me, 'Ver, Ver, Ver, throw a hundred.’"
“'OK, Prince, here we go,'" Verlander recalled of the exchange.
Verlander said that kind of showing off won't be an issue this year.
“I don't quite throw 100 anymore,” he said. “Maybe I'll try tomorrow, I don't know.”
He smiled to let everyone know he was joking, then added, "Thanks for bringing that up, by the way.”
Verlander appears to be on a fast track to the Hall of Fame. His 214 victories rank 90th all-time in big league history, while his 2,859 strikeouts are 18th. He’s also won the AL Cy Young (2011), the AL MVP (‘11) and AL Rookie of the Year ('06) Awards.
Verlander is no stranger to baseball’s biggest stages, ranking fourth in postseason wins (13) and strikeouts (167), with a 7-0 mark and a 2.38 ERA in 11 career League Division Series starts.
He is one of 28 pitchers in Major League history with two career no-hitters. Only Hall of Famers Nolan Ryan (seven), Sandy Koufax (four) and Bob Feller (three) have more since 1900.
He has been around long enough to have some perspective on his impact on the game, and on Tuesday, he reflected on his first Midsummer Classic. That was in 2007, when he was a 24-year-old kid still figuring things out.
“It was a pretty incredible recollection, actually,” Verlander said. “I stepped into the locker room with the guys I grew up with watching: [Derek] Jeter, Big Papi [David Ortiz], A-Rod [Alex Rodriguez], Ichiro [Suzuki], all these guys. And I kind of sat in my corner and took it all in. Felt like I didn't belong. And it's hard to explain what that moment felt like for me.”
Now, he’s that guy the younger players watch and emulate.
“To where I'm at now, probably being one of the elder statesmen in the locker room, I think this game has the unique ability to put things in perspective for you,” he said, “and that was one of those moments.”
The All-Star Game will be televised nationally by FOX Sports; in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet and RDS; and worldwide by partners in more than 180 countries. FOX Deportes will provide Spanish-language coverage in the United States, while ESPN Radio and ESPN Radio Deportes will provide exclusive national radio coverage. MLB Network, MLB.com and SiriusXM also will provide comprehensive All-Star Week coverage.
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.