Just like old times as Astros turn to Verlander in ALCS opener

October 15th, 2023

HOUSTON -- The Astros wouldn’t be headed to their seventh consecutive American League Championship Series without pitcher . That would have been a ridiculous sentence to read six months ago, when Verlander was in the first year of a huge deal with the Mets and a return to Houston seemed unfathomable.

So many things -- good and bad -- had to align for Verlander to wind up back with the Astros that you can only wonder if it’s fate. Even Verlander himself still has a hard time rationalizing everything that’s happened in the past few months, but here he is back in orange and blue and preparing to take the ball in Game 1 of the ALCS against the Rangers on Sunday night at Minute Maid Park.

“Any time you play a division rival in the playoffs, you know each other so well it makes for a fun series,” Verlander said.

When Verlander was traded to the Astros for the first time from the Tigers late in 2017, he debated whether to even waive his no-trade clause. He was a legend in Detroit, but Houston represented an opportunity to win a World Series.

A nudge from Astros pitcher Dallas Keuchel and the OK from his then-fiancée (and now wife) Kate Upton, prompted Verlander to say yes to the deal.

The fun was just beginning.

Verlander’s accomplishments since putting on an Astros uniform have been remarkable. He won two World Series titles, was the Most Valuable Player of the 2017 ALCS, won two AL Cy Young Awards (and finished second once), reached 200 wins and 3,000 strikeouts, and also threw his third no-hitter.

Verlander parlayed that success into a lucrative contract with the Mets, but when things went sour in Queens and they became Trade Deadline sellers, a return to Houston became a reality.

“I certainly couldn’t have planned this or seen it coming,” Verlander said. “But obviously, things work out for a reason.”

The Astros paid a huge price for re-acquiring Verlander -- sending the Mets their top two prospects at the time in outfielders Drew Gilbert and Ryan Clifford. Few fans will bemoan losing those players if Houston can win another World Series with Verlander.

A day after Verlander was traded to the Astros on Aug. 1, he was in the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium doing a crossword puzzle, asking for help across the room from teammate Alex Bregman. Verlander was as comfortable as he could be. It was like he never left.

Verlander went 7-3 with a 3.31 ERA in 11 starts for Houston in August and September, including two clutch performances in the Astros’ season-defining 5-1 road trip to end the regular season.

In starts against the Mariners and D-backs, Verlander won both and allowed one earned run in 13 innings. He threw six scoreless innings in a win over the Twins in Game 1 of the AL Division Series -- his 17th career postseason win, second only to Andy Pettitte (19).

When the Astros clinched their seventh consecutive berth in the ALCS by beating the Twins on Wednesday at Target Field, it was Verlander who gave the postgame speech. He spoke about the grind of the season and how the Astros had to battle through injures, before reminding his teammates: “I wasn’t even here!”

Verlander told the boys not to take what they’ve accomplished for granted -- only the 1990s Braves have played in more consecutive League Champion Series. The Astros won two World Series titles, four AL pennants and six AL West titles in seven years. Verlander was in the middle of it all, even with a little pit stop in the Big Apple. “A summer abroad,” he calls it.

Verlander will take the ball on Sunday night for his 14th career Game 1 start, hoping to move the Astros a step closer to another Fall Classic. No team has repeated as World Series champions since the 1998-2000 Yankees, but the Astros have a chance to cement their status as a dynasty if they can win a third championship in seven seasons.

They wouldn’t be here without their ace.

“I think that's what's so magical about this team is these guys don't take a day off,” Verlander said. “They don't take anything for granted and come with desire.

"I know that sounds weird being in the playoffs, but when you've been to the playoffs as many times as we have in a row, I think it's harder to not take things for granted, I guess, but we surely do not.”