HOUSTON -- Justin Verlander, the 2019 American League Cy Young Award winner, will make his 12th career Opening Day start when the Astros face the Mariners on July 24 at Minute Maid Park, Houston manager Dusty Baker announced Wednesday afternoon.
The Astros have never lost an Opening Day game since moving to the AL in 2013, winning seven consecutive openers. Last year, Verlander became the 14th pitcher in history to record 11 Opening Day starts and won his seventh consecutive Opening Day decision by allowing one run in seven innings to beat Blake Snell and the Rays.
“I think Opening Day really kind of brings you back to your first Opening Day,” Verlander said in February. “It never goes away -- that buzz, that excitement. It’s just a special day for all the baseball world.”
That buzz of the crowd will be absent this year with no fans in the stands because of the coronavirus pandemic. Verlander’s run of Opening Day starts appeared to be coming to a halt in 2020 when he underwent groin surgery in mid-March, just as baseball was shut down. The layoff allowed Verlander to get healthy and refine his mechanics.
“One of my goals was to get my mechanics back to what they had been and get my velocity up to what it used to be, or better than last year anyway,” he said last week. “I looked at this as an opportunity to get better. I went through a full rebuild process, working on getting my mechanics where I wanted them. I went down the rabbit hole.”
Verlander, 37, looked sharp in throwing five scoreless innings (67 pitches) in an instrasquad game Tuesday at Minute Maid Park, and he is scheduled to pitch in his final Summer Camp instrasquad game Sunday.
“I would say right now I’m probably about where I should be, maybe a little bit behind just because obviously the circumstances and the rehab and everything I went through,” Verlander said Tuesday. “It does feel a little bit rushed. … But this isn’t ideal for anyone, and it is what it is.”
Baker said Lance McCullers Jr. would likely start the second game of the season July 25 instead of veteran Zack Greinke, whose throwing program was delayed when workouts were partially closed Sunday because of possible coronavirus exposure to a staff member who worked with the pitchers. That would be McCullers’ first start since injuring his elbow Aug. 4, 2018, an injury that eventually required Tommy John surgery that cost McCullers the 2019 season.
Verlander is coming off one of the best seasons of his career, perhaps trailing the 2011 season in which he won his first Cy Young and Most Valuable Player Award. In 34 starts in 2019, he went 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA, 300 strikeouts and a 0.80 WHIP in 223 innings. His WHIP was the second-lowest in the last 100 years.
Verlander became the fourth Astros pitcher to win the Cy Young Award and second in the AL, joining Dallas Keuchel (2015). Mike Scott (1986) and Roger Clemens (2004) won the award with Houston in the National League.
Verlander led the Majors in batting average against (.172), which was the seventh-lowest since 1900, wins and innings pitched, while ranking second in the AL in ERA behind Gerrit Cole (2.50). He reached 300 strikeouts for the first time in his career and threw his third career no-hitter on Sept. 1 at Toronto.