Contreras' tiebreaking HR ends epic 13-pitch battle vs. JV

May 19th, 2024

HOUSTON -- fired fastballs and curveballs and even a changeup at in search of one final out. It was the best of baseball -- an all-time ace locked in a long battle against a budding star, two outs and two runners in scoring position in a tie game.

On the 13th pitch of their showdown and Verlander’s 42nd pitch of the decisive fifth inning, Contreras finally found solid contact. His three-run home run sailed a Statcast-projected 428 feet and sent the Brewers toward a 4-2 win over the Astros on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park.

Contreras called it the best at-bat of his career. That didn’t surprise his 65-year-old manager.

“Yeah, that’s one of the best ones I’ve seen in my career, and my career is a hell of a lot longer than his,” Brewers manager Pat Murphy said. “That just made a statement about who the guy is. It represents our team.”

Besides snapping Houston’s six-game winning streak, the NL Central-leading Brewers spoiled an outing in which Verlander moved past former teammate Max Scherzer and into 11th place on MLB’s all-time strikeouts list with three on Saturday and 3,368 in his career. Verlander needs just four more strikeouts to pass Greg Maddux for sole possession of 10th place.

He could have used one more.

“Great at-bat,” Verlander said. “We got in a fight. He won. I can go home and put my head on my pillow tonight. I made a bunch of good pitches. He’s one of the best hitters in baseball and he got me. Obviously, it still hurts, you know? It sucks. I felt like I was throwing the right pitches there.”

For both sides of the fight, it was a rare moment. Contreras tied for the Brewers' longest at-bat to end in a home run since pitch counting began in 1988, joining a list that includes Jesús Aguilar’s walk-off against the Marlins on April 21, 2018.

And it represented the longest at-bat against Verlander to end in a home run, besting Paul Konerko’s 11-pitch epic on April 22, 2011.

“I think I have a lot of confidence in my ability and what I’m able to do,” Contreras said. “I don’t think that’s something I necessarily believed a whole lot in, but now that I’m having the year that I’m having, it really helps to maintain calm and [stay] focused on what I’m able to do as a hitter.”

Verlander went into the fifth inning at 56 pitches with a 1-0 lead, but the Brewers cobbled together their first extended rally from the bottom of the batting order. A single and two walks -- one from 20-year-old rookie Jackson Chourio, who was born three months before the 41-year-old Verlander was drafted -- preceded Blake Perkins’ tying sacrifice fly.

That itself was a critical moment. Perkins worked Verlander for 10 pitches.

“To go first, that was cool,” Perkins said. “[Contreras’] was cooler.”

Verlander secured the second out of the inning and settled in to face Contreras, who at 26 is no longer just the younger brother of Willson Contreras but an elite catcher in his own right, with a 176 wRC+ entering Saturday that ranked tied for fifth in the Majors.

Verlander got ahead in the count, 1-2, but then missed outside with two straight pitches to push the count full.

“He kept fouling them off and took a really good curveball, 1-2, that was just off,” Verlander said. “Just an epic at-bat. Frustrating. Honestly, that at-bat doesn’t really bother me that much. I kind of got out of sequence that inning. A couple of walks, the home run. Obviously, the scoreboard is the difference in the game, but for me, I was losing my mechanics a little bit and walking a couple of guys is a bit more frustrating.”

On the sixth pitch, Contreras fouled off a curveball. Then, a 96.3 mph fastball. Then, that changeup, the only one Verlander showed Contreras in their three meetings all night.

Verlander kept rearing back and firing as his pitch count in the inning reached and exceeded 40. Contreras kept flicking everything foul. The 12th pitch of the at-bat was a fastball at 96.5 mph, one of Verlander’s four-hardest offerings all night. Contreras fouled it off for a seventh straight time.

Verlander kept challenging.

“If he walks him, he knows he’s coming out of the game most likely,” Murphy said. “He’s a guy that has been successful in virtually every situation. … I’m sure, occasionally, across his incredible career, he’s ran across an at-bat like that. I’m sure he respects that.”

Pitch No. 13 was another fastball, up in the zone and too close to the middle of the plate. Contreras lined it at 109.3 mph off the bat, per Statcast, breaking the tie and ending Verlander’s 515th regular-season start in one swing.

“In my first two ABs, I was just missing underneath the ball,” Contreras said. “I’m a hitter that’s going to make adjustments pitch by pitch, so in that last at-bat, those were the adjustments I was making and we were able to win it.”

Verlander went down with his best stuff.

“If I throw Contreras a slider there, 3-2, and he hits a home run, I would have a much harder time laying my head down tonight and being able to go to sleep than the way it happened,” he said.

By the time he talked at his locker, Contreras joked that he’d already watched the highlight 25 times.

“I’m gonna go eat,” he said, “and then maybe 100 more.”