HOUSTON -- To understand what Justin Verlander has meant to the Houston Astros, let's revisit the game that changed everything and helped catapult them into the Fall Classic.• Dress for the World Series: Get Astros postseason gearThe Astros were one defeat from elimination when they returned to Minute Maid Park
HOUSTON -- To understand what Justin Verlander has meant to the Houston Astros, let's revisit the game that changed everything and helped catapult them into the Fall Classic.
• Dress for the World Series: Get Astros postseason gear
The Astros were one defeat from elimination when they returned to Minute Maid Park on Friday night after three tough losses at Yankee Stadium. Suddenly, the walls were closing in.
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And that game on Friday started badly.
"After the first three innings, I was starting to panic," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "We hadn't hit for three days. Really, we hadn't hit the whole series. [Yankees starter Luis] Severino's stuff was electric, and it was looking like he was going to shut us down."
Luhnow remembers beginning a countdown as neither team scored for the first four innings.
"I'm thinking, 'It's now a six-inning game, now a five-inning game,'" he said. "It was really tough."
In the end, though, the Astros were not going to lose, because Verlander was not going to let them. That's why he was named the Most Valuable Player of the American League Championship Series presented by Camping World on Saturday, after the Astros' 4-0 win over the Yankees in Game 7 to advance to face the Dodgers in the World Series presented by YouTube TV, which begins Tuesday night in Los Angeles.
Verlander was honored for starting twice and coming up huge both times. In Game 2 on Oct. 14, he threw a 124-pitch complete game as the Astros won, 2-1, to take a 2-0 series lead.
And then in Game 6, with Houston facing elimination, Verlander threw seven shutout innings as the Astros beat the Yanks, 7-1, to even the ALCS at three victories apiece and force Saturday's Game 7.
Verlander is headed to his third World Series -- he was on the losing end with Detroit in 2006 and '12 -- after Houston got a combined three-hitter from Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers in the decisive Game 7.
To sum up Verlander's two ALCS starts: two victories, a 0.56 ERA, 21 strikeouts and just two walks in 16 innings.
With 21 combined punchouts in the ALCS, Verlander joined Bob Gibson, Curt Schilling and Sandy Koufax as the only pitchers to record at least 20 strikeouts against the Yankees in a postseason series. Verlander also joined John Smoltz as the only pitchers to have three career elimination-game starts of at least seven scoreless innings after his heroic Game 6 effort.
"What he's meant to this organization is the same that Randy Johnson meant in 1998 when we acquired him," Hall of Famer Craig Biggio said. "There are only so many horses in the game. I say that respectfully. He's a stopper. He's going to go out there every fifth day and throw 100-130 pitches. He has done everything we hoped he'd do, and then some, and we're excited to see what happens in the World Series."
Verlander has pitched in nine games (including one relief appearance in the ALDS) since the Astros acquired him from the Tigers on Aug. 31, at the last minute of the deadline for waiver trades, and Houston has won all nine. His arrival was both a physical and emotional lift for a team that had lost 19 of 30. Since then, it's gone 29-12, winning more games than any team in the Majors.
"He's one of the chosen ones," Morton said. "He's a one-percenter. He's just a beast. To see it in person and be in the clubhouse with him, he's just a different animal."
Verlander waived his no-trade clause to come to the Astros because he saw it as a chance to join a team that had an opportunity to win a championship. So far, so good. He said he'll remember Friday's game for a long time.
"Yesterday was one of the best moments of my career, plain and simple," said Verlander, who will get the ball in Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday night. "To come back home after being on the road, and to be able to keep these guys off the board for seven innings and be able to come away the winning pitcher ...
"When you're in the backyard as a kid, those are the moments that you create in your head. And to be able to succeed in those moments, I mean, it's the most fulfilling thing you can do."
The thing about aces that makes them different is that they accept the responsibility for stopping losing streaks, pitching the biggest games, etc. The Astros could not be more confident in their World Series rotation with Dallas Keuchel, Verlander, McCullers and Morton lined up for Games 1-4.
"This is what we play for," Verlander said. "These are the experiences that you remember at the end of your career, when you look back, winning these games, just playing the World Series, hopefully winning the World Series."
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.