HOUSTON -- The way Justin Verlander sees it, his brief stint as a member of the Mets in the first half of the summer was like studying abroad. There’s nothing like New York in the summer anyway. As fall was approaching, Verlander packed his bags and returned to the Astros, who swung a blockbuster deal to bring their star pupil back to Houston.
Now that Verlander has settled back with the Astros, the team he helped win two World Series titles in a six-year span, it’s time for final exams. Verlander will take the ball for Houston in Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Twins at 3:45 p.m. CT Saturday at Minute Maid Park, where the Astros have won 11 consecutive ALDS games since 2017.
“It's been a journey, that's for sure,” Verlander said. “Funny how things shake out. I'm happy to be here, happy to have this opportunity, and just see what happens.”
Verlander will be making his 35th career postseason start, including his 19th with the Astros. He started Game 1 of the ALDS, ALCS and World Series last year for the Astros and earned his first career World Series win with a Game 5 victory in Philadelphia. His 16 career postseason wins are second all-time behind Andy Pettitte (19), and Verlander is the all-time leader in postseason strikeouts with 230. With his start in Game 1, Verlander will tie Tom Glavine for the second-most postseason starts, and will only be behind Pettitte, who had 44.
Still, Verlander will have some nerves when takes the mound Saturday, which he says is natural. He’s dealt with nerves before starts since he was a kid, and they serve as a reminder of the magnitude of the moment.
“I think at this level, the feelings that I have internally, the emotions are no different than when I was younger,” he said. “Now, as a more mature man, I've learned to deal with them a little bit better. I think you learn to embrace your routine. That helps a lot.
"I think the routine of things for me -- and probably a lot of athletes -- really helps kind of let your body kind of just be calm. It knows what it's doing. It knows the routine. You just kind of try to stay out of your own way.”
Verlander, who won his third Cy Young last year with the Astros before signing with the Mets, went 13-8 with a 3.22 ERA this season, including 7-3 with a 3.31 ERA in 11 starts with Houston. He was perhaps at his best at the end of the season. Verlander allowed one run on five hits in 13 innings in wins against the Mariners and D-backs in the final week of the regular season, earning him an AL Player of the Week nod.
In his last start of the regular season Saturday against the D-backs in Arizona, his fastball averaged 95.4 mph, which was his highest average this year. Verlander said he wasn’t emptying the tank. The increased velocity was the result of some mechanical changes he made that he hopes he can carry into the postseason.
“There's been times this year where I'm sure my pitching coaches -- from both the Mets and here -- would say I probably threw too much, but this is really the only way I know how to do things,” Verlander said. “Just kind of as things have started to settle a little bit, I've started to find some stuff mechanically that freed me up a little bit, particularly in this last start.
"I found something just kind of mobility-wise, that freed up my body a little bit. I wasn't sure how it was going to work. I told a couple guys in the locker room that I thought I found something, and I always say that, so they would kind of joke with me.”
Saturday will be Verlander’s 14th career start in the ALDS, which will be second-most behind Pettitte (15). That doesn’t make Verlander feel any more comfortable or relaxed, especially against a Twins team that swept the Blue Jays in the Wild Card Series and has a bit of momentum.
“I think that's what's so magical about this team is these guys don't take a day off,” he said. “They don't take anything for granted and come with desire. I know that sounds weird being in the playoffs, but when you've been to the playoffs as many times as we have in a row, I think it's harder to not take things for granted. But we surely do not.”