Verlander finds success with changeup vs. Mets

Altuve returns on defense; Whitley shows maturity

March 2nd, 2019

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Astros ace Justin Verlander continues to refine his changeup, which he hopes to use more as a fourth effective pitch behind his fastball, power slider and curveball. That was his focus in Saturday’s 8-7 win over the Mets at First Data Field, when he breezed through three innings while throwing only seven balls in 38 pitches.

Verlander, who gave up a homer to Michael Conforto, said he threw a few changeups, including three in a row at one point to Robinson Cano. He struck out right-handers Pete Alonso and J.D. Davis -- his former teammate -- with the pitch in the second inning.

“I thought it was great,” Verlander said. “I threw a couple that were kind of mediocre. One or two ended up being taken for strikes. … The ones I executed down in the zone were great. I was really, really pleased with that today.”

Astros manager AJ Hinch certainly doesn’t mind his ace pitcher gaining confidence in another pitch.

“He’s using it against righties and lefties and it’s something he’s committed to for the spring and testing himself a little bit,” he said. “Getting through three innings was good. We wanted to get him up. It was a hot day today and he accomplished just about everything he wanted to for his outing.”

Verlander, who takes an extended break from throwing each offseason, is still trying to get to know new catcher Robinson Chirinos. He clicked immediately with veteran catcher Brian McCann late in the 2017 season after coming over from Detroit and so far has worked well with Chirinos.

“We talked a lot back and forth and I think he’s got a great mindset of what I want to do,” Verlander said. “He knows I call my own game and he’s trying to get on the same page as me and so far, so good. I keep telling him, ‘I want to refine certain pitches in certain spots, just because I’m working on it. You didn’t necessarily throw down the wrong fingers.’”

Altuve returns to field
While All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman made his Grapefruit League debut Saturday less than two months following elbow surgery, former American League Most Valuable Player Jose Altuve returned to the field on defense Saturday for the first time since he had surgery for a broken kneecap immediately after the AL Championship Series ended.

Altuve started at second base for the first time this spring and went 0-for-1 with a walk before leaving the game. Altuve played in the second half of last season with a bum knee and was forced to be a DH in the playoffs because of the pain.

Saturday’s game was indicative of how far he’s come since surgery.

“It feels very good actually,” Altuve said. “I feels better than what I thought. Thank God for the opportunity to play second base today. I’m really happy and felt good hitting. I mean, I walked. I feel where I wanted to be right now.”

Altuve injured the knee originally sliding into second base last July and aggravated it a few times as the season progressed. He has yet to test it with a slide into a base, but he knows it’s coming.

“I know I’m not very far away from being 100 percent,” he said. “I might be 95, 98, [and] everybody here is the same way. Spring Training is just to get the last step to get to 100 percent. We’re all on the same page here. We’re trying to be in the best shape and best condition to go through the season. We’re working really hard to do that.”

Whitley shows maturity
It was a day of ups and downs for top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley, who was rocked for five runs in the fifth inning in his second Spring Training outing before responding with six consecutive outs to finish three innings of work. He gave up a grand slam to Wilson Ramos in the fifth, with a fielding error helping to keep the inning alive. Only one run was earned.

“He tried to sneak a strike in with the bases loaded to Ramos and paid for it, kind of a middle-middle fastball,” Hinch said. “That will be a nice learning lesson for him. I was really proud of him for coming back in the next two innings and being really sharp; that shows some maturity.”

Hinch called it a “productive day” for baseball’s No. 7 overall ranked prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, because of how he finished. Whitley said he had to fight back through adversity.

“I felt like I did a good job of managing everything,” he said. “I caught of a couple of bad breaks. I felt like I made some bad pitches at some bad times and got hit hard when I needed to execute a pitch. That was pretty much it. Other than that, I thought I pitched really well. I thought I was able to come back from that really bad inning. Some bad breaks in that first inning, and I’ve just got to work on that.”

Up next
Right-hander Gerrit Cole will make his second Grapefruit League start when the Astros face the Nationals at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches at 12:05 p.m. CT Sunday. The Astros will be the designated visiting team.