HOUSTON -- Routine is the best way to describe Justin Verlander’s outing on Saturday night. Just another day at the ballpark. Houston manager Dusty Baker pretty much knows what he’s going to get out of his ace whenever he takes the mound.
Verlander rarely disappoints. He was at his customary best against the Rangers. He may have scattered six hits -- all singles -- but he fulfilled the most important statistic. He did not allow a run over his six innings of work in Houston’s 2-1 victory over Texas at Minute Maid Park, delivering his third straight scoreless start.
“He was good,” Baker said. “His velocity was back up, and he had an outstanding curveball and slider. He gave us all he had for those innings.”
Verlander’s fastball was sitting at 95 mph. Slider hovered around 87 mph. And his curveball, averaging 79 mph, was effective. He struck out eight without issuing a free pass.
“I wasn’t locked in the whole game, but found some pitches when I needed to,” Verlander said. “I thought [the Rangers] had a pretty good approach, so I had to make some big pitches and was able to when I needed.”
This has been the norm all season for Verlander. The two-time Cy Young Award winner, who came in with a stellar 1.38 ERA, managed to lower that number to 1.22, improving to a 6-1 record on the season.
In his previous start, Verlander threw five scoreless innings in a victory over the Nationals. All this after missing most of the past two seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery.
“He really worked to get to this point,” Baker said. “He’s unlike almost any other player I’ve ever had.”
Of Verlander’s 95 pitches, 67 were strikes. His counterpart Jon Gray threw 56 strikes among his 94 pitches over six innings.
“[Verlander is] such an impressive pitcher,” said catcher Jason Castro, who contributed on two key outs. After denying Texas a run with a tag on Brad Miller thanks to a laser throw from Kyle Tucker in the first inning, Castro threw out Adolis García attempting to steal third with Houston holding a one-run lead in the eighth.
“With the results [Verlander has] had this year, he’s been so good, but he’s constantly trying to get better in between every start,” Castro added. “His slider tonight was the best we’ve seen it [this year].”
Over the last five years or so, Verlander's slider has been his biggest swing-and-miss pitch.
In eight starts this season, Verlander has posted an MLB-best 0.72 WHIP. His eight strikeouts on Saturday tied a season high. Baker thought about sending Verlander out to start the seventh, but he didn’t want Verlander’s pitch count to get too high.
“We take that into consideration because we want him for the [full season],” Baker said.
The Rangers managed to get hits in five of the six innings Verlander pitched. But when Verlander needed an out, he got it. His most productive inning was the fourth, when he struck out the side in order.
Kole Calhoun -- who has struck out against Verlander 31 times in 59 career at-bats, including two punchouts Saturday -- managed to get a single in the sixth, though the threat was quickly erased on a Jonah Heim groundout.
“I’ve had a good feel for my curveball most of the season,” said Verlander, who has turned in 19 straight scoreless innings, his longest stretch since going 22 2/3 innings without yielding a run between May 10-27, 2006. “Towards the end of the ballgame, I started to find the slider that I’ve been searching for. Hopefully, that is going to be able to carry over to the next start.”
The biggest jam Verlander got into was the first, when the first two Rangers reached base after Castro was unable to field a slow roller in front of the plate off the bat of leadoff hitter Miller. Marcus Semien followed with a single, putting runners on first and second.
But Verlander turned on another gear to escape the inning unscathed. He also was aided by a great throw from Tucker in right field that nabbed Miller at the plate. Verlander then struck out Calhoun, who entered Saturday with five home runs over his last six games.
“Tuck throwing [Miller] out at home was huge,” Verlander said. “What a change in momentum, especially in the first inning.”