LOS ANGELES -- At around 1 p.m. local time on Wednesday, more than four hours before the start of Game 7 in the World Series, Justin Verlander walked out of Dodger Stadium's visiting clubhouse for a game of catch. Astros officials watched with interest, curious what Verlander might be able to provide following his six-inning performance in Game 6 on Tuesday. Verlander assured them he felt "great," strong, ready to be part of the team's clinching plans.
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"The storybook ending in a close game," pitching coach Brent Strom said, "Verlander comes in riding a white horse and blows them away."
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Never did things grow tense enough for the Astros to break that emergency glass, leaving Verlander to fritter away their 5-1 win over the Dodgers in the bullpen. When the final out nestled in Yuli Gurriel's glove, Verlander rushed the length of the field, the missing piece of his resume finally complete.
"I've never finished a game in the bullpen," Verlander said, laughing. "I just started running to get to the dogpile as quick as I could. It was a pretty cool moment. I remember running and looking to my left and right and seeing my teammates, and how excited everyone was, and we're full sprint. That's probably the moment that will stick in my head the most."
For 13 years, Verlander dreamed of this moment. He won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2006, then the AL Cy Young Award and the AL MVP Award five years later. Verlander became one of this generation's best pitchers. Five times with the Tigers, he reached the postseason, twice winning AL pennants.
But the Tigers never took the final step. Not in 2006, when Verlander still didn't fully grasp the rarity of these chances. Not even in '12, when Detroit entered the Fall Classic heavily favored over San Francisco. Despite his overall postseason successes, Verlander was 0-3 in three World Series starts.
Then came 2017 and an August waiver trade to the Astros, who considered him their capstone. It was not lost on Verlander that he arrived mere days after Hurricane Harvey made landfall near Houston. Verlander wanted to help and knew that he could, recalling how much life the Tigers gave Detroit during last decade's economic crisis.
"We didn't shy away from the fact that this city resonated with what we were doing," Verlander said. "To give people who are going through a hard time something to really cheer about, and step away from whatever hardships they're going through and rally around, it creates a special bond. I saw it way back when and felt it when I got here. And to really kind of follow through an actually win the whole damn thing, it doesn't get any better than that."
Even as Verlander sat idle in the bullpen in Game 7, there was no denying his role in all of this. In five postseason starts and one relief outing for the Astros, he went 4-1 with a 2.21 ERA. Striking out 13 in Game 2 of the AL Championship Series against the Yankees, Verlander returned six days later to pitch seven shutout innings in Game 6. Although he lost one of his World Series starts and took a no-decision in another, he allowed just five runs in 12 innings, with 14 strikeouts and two walks.
If Verlander one day climbs the steps of the Hall of Fame, this will be among the reasons why. One of baseball's best pitchers for 13 years running finally has his long-awaited ring.
"I can't really put into words how special this is," Verlander said. "I want to thank all my teammates, past and present. Having been through what I've been through in the past, it makes it that much more special."