DETROIT -- There were loud ovations, a tip of the cap and even a scoreboard tribute video that was enough to make Justin Verlander deviate from his regimented pregame routine and stop in his tracks in the Comerica Park outfield prior to Monday's game against the Tigers and take it
DETROIT -- There were loud ovations, a tip of the cap and even a scoreboard tribute video that was enough to make Justin Verlander deviate from his regimented pregame routine and stop in his tracks in the Comerica Park outfield prior to Monday's game against the Tigers and take it all in.
Verlander spent a few minutes soaking up the memories and the adoration before getting down to business. Making his first start at Comerica Park since he was traded to Houston last year after 13 seasons in Detroit, Verlander struck out 10 batters in seven innings to lead the Astros to a 3-2 win over the Tigers.
• Verlander smiles watching Tigers' video tribute
"Honestly I didn't know how I was going to feel," Verlander said. "I knew it was different than a regular in-season game. I didn't know what to expect, really. Walking in from the bullpen, I'm usually pretty focused and in my zone. They started playing the tribute video and I couldn't help but stop and look at it and just take a minute and just be out there with the fans and appreciate some moments that we shared together the last 13 years."
Verlander will be remembered as one of the greatest pitchers in Tigers history, winning the American League Cy Young Award and Most Valuable Player Award in 2011, leading Detroit to two AL pennants and throwing a pair of no-hitters in a Tigers uniform. He approved a trade to the Tigers last Aug. 31 in what was a gut-wrenching decision for him and wound up helping the Astros win the World Series.
"So many great memories," he said. "Hard to keep in check and go out there and reset and pitch. Once the game started, it was kind of business as usual. I could definitely hear the fans, though, and especially walking off after the seventh. The ovation they gave me meant the world."
The Astros (90-54), winners of eight of their last nine games, joined the Red Sox as baseball's only 90-plus-win teams and extended their first-place lead in the AL West over the A's to three games.
Verlander (15-9) won for the fourth time in five starts, reaching double-digit strikeouts for the 52nd time in his career. Verlander and Gerrit Cole became the first right-handed pitchers on the same team to strike out at least 250 batters in the same season since at least 1900. They are the first set of teammates to strike out at least 250 batters in a season since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in 2002.
"He was battling a lot," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "He was battling his fastball command, he was battling his adrenaline. I've never seen him stop from his walk in from the bullpen -- for his tribute, obviously. It was emotional for him. I don't know how much he'll tell you, but it was emotional to have him walk out on the mound again after such a great career here. That being said, he threw a ton of strikes and finished his outing and still had some stuff left in the tank."
A sluggish Astros team, which didn't arrive to its suburban Detroit hotel until 4:30 a.m. ET following Sunday's game in Boston, didn't play a clean game offensively and managed only five singles. All three of the runs they scored against Tigers starter Francisco Liriano were unearned.
"We found a way to pull a win out of it on a day that was hard to play for a lot of reasons, but we got a little bit erratic with our plate discipline, plate approach, and [Liriano] took advantage of that early," Hinch said.
Verlander gave up a run in the second before sending down 10 batters in a row, including five by strikeout. A sacrifice fly by Nicholas Castellanos in the sixth made it 3-2, but Verlander reared back and struck out JaCoby Jones and Jeimer Candelario to finish the seventh inning and strand a pair of runners. The Comerica Park crowd gave him another ovation when he walked off the field following a 104-pitch outing, and Verlander tipped his cap one more time.
"That's why he's so great," Jones said. "He reaches that extra gear in the late innings. He's throwing 95-96, and then in the late innings when he needs it, he can get it up close to 100 miles an hour, 98-99. He's a tough pitcher. You just have to keep battling. But hopefully we can come out tomorrow and play good ball and get a W."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
The Astros turned a critical double play in the eighth with Thomas Pressly on the mound nursing a 3-2 lead and a runner at first base and one out. Victor Martinez hit a sinking liner to right fielder Josh Reddick, who made a shoestring catch. Reddick jumped to his feet and threw a strike to shortstop Carlos Correa, who threw out Castellanos scurrying back to first base to end the inning. Marwin Gonzalez, who had just moved from left field to first base, made a long stretch to catch the ball and keep his foot on the bag.
"Huge play," Hinch said. "For us to just be able to make a play in this game -- we felt like we gave them opportunities [and] they gave us opportunities. It was an ugly game, but that's our best defense out there, and Red comes up with a big catch and Carlos makes a great throw. Marwin, just in at first base, makes the stretch and that was a nice emotional swing. That wasn't going to be an easy part of the lineup with Pressly."
With 258 strikeouts this season, Verlander passed Cole for the AL lead and has posted the fifth-highest single-season strikeout total in team history.
ALTUVE STAYS IN GAME
Astros second baseman Jose Altuve, who was on the disabled list last month with right knee soreness, banged his knee trying to stab Castellanos' ground ball base hit in the eighth and was briefly hobbled. Hinch and head athletic trainer Jeremiah Randall came to the field to check on the reigning AL MVP, but he stayed in the game.
"I felt a little uncomfortable today on that play but nothing major," Altuve said. "I'm good to play tomorrow."
HE SAID IT
"That one got me. I still wish I could've gotten him a World Series ring, and this city one." -- Verlander, on the image of late former Tigers owner Mike Ilitch during the video tribute
Left-hander Framber Valdez (3-1, 1.37 ERA) makes his fourth career start when the Astros meet the Tigers at 5:40 p.m. CT Tuesday at Comerica Park. Right-hander Jordan Zimmermann (7-6 4.03 ERA) will start for the Tigers.
Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter and listen to his podcast.