LOS ANGELES -- As the madness of early Monday morning spilled into a busy Astros clubhouse in Houston, Justin Verlander dressed quietly and headed for the exit. Verlander's teammates had reason to celebrate following their 13-12, 10-inning win over the Dodgers in Game 5 of the World Series, sending them to Los Angeles with a 3-2 Series lead. But it was not merely standing on the cusp of a championship that had them gleaming.
"We're giving the ball to Justin Verlander," Astros outfielder George Springer said, "and that's going to be awesome for us."
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"We're happy he's going," added Astros catcher Brian McCann. "We'll be ready."
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With a win tonight in Game 6 at Dodger Stadium, Verlander can add to what manager A.J. Hinch called the right-hander's "legacy," which at this point includes just about everything other than a World Series title. Verlander can cement his status as one of this generation's best postseason performers, and can add, at age 34, to his burgeoning Hall of Fame credentials.
"These are what it's all about," Verlander said. "These are the moments that you want to be a part of as a baseball player. It's everything you could ask for."
Verlander has been everything the Astros could have asked for, and more, since they acquired him for three prospects in an August waiver deal, winning all five of his September starts with a 1.06 ERA, 43 strikeouts and five walks. The only runs against him came on four solo homers.
He has subsequently gone 4-0 in five October outings, including a six-inning quality start in last Wednesday's Game 2. In that one, Verlander retired the first nine batters he faced -- four via strikeout -- before allowing a Joc Pederson home run in the fifth and a Corey Seager two-run shot in the sixth. Overall this postseason, Verlander owns a 2.05 ERA, prompting Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig to call him "the best pitcher they have."
As such, Verlander has already taken his place among the most valuable trade acquisitions in big league history, joining Randy Johnson (to the Astros in 1998), Carlos Beltran (Astros, 2004), Yoenis Cespedes (Mets, '15) and Albertin Chapman (Cubs, '16). Verlander's deal occurred after the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, and he is not a true rental; the Astros hold his rights for the next two seasons. But he has nonetheless altered the path of a franchise that might not be in the World Series without him.
"He's got a legacy that's building that's pretty impressive," Hinch said.
For Verlander, that may one day include a crack at Cooperstown, where his 188-144 career record, 3.46 ERA and 2,416 strikeouts have him heading down the proper path. To date, Verlander's WAR falls shy of the average Hall of Fame pitcher, mostly because of his relative lack of innings. But a few more standout seasons would put him in the conversation. And a World Series victory would propel Verlander upward at an even faster rate.
It's the one thing he has yet to prove, going 0-3 with a 6.43 ERA in four World Series starts with the Tigers and Astros. At Dodger Stadium, Verlander will face a lineup he called "deep" and "talented," which is obvious to anyone who has seen L.A. play this year. And he will face a counterpart, Rich Hill, who owns a 2.77 ERA this postseason.
"It's something that all of us have been preparing our entire careers for," Hill said. "Going out there in Game 6 and having the ability to be in that position, and go out there and leave everything on the field, is just an amazing thought. I think it's something that, looking back on it, whatever the outcome might be, that you did everything that you could to put your team in a position to win."
"As soon as the postseason starts, you're living or dying on every single pitch, and your whole team is living or dying on every single pitch," Verlander said. "It changes everything."
More than anything, the Astros just want Verlander to be the same flame-throwing ace he has been for most of his career. This is why they acquired him. They need one more victory and would prefer it sooner rather than later, seeking to avoid the uncertainty of a winner-take-all Game 7.
"It's still a one-game season," Hinch said. "We're going to walk in and try to win the game in Game 6. We've got Verlander going ... we know what's at stake. They know what's at stake. This is Game 6 of the World Series coming up."
"To be heading back to L.A. and to hand the ball to Verlander?" added Springer. "I love it."