ST. PETERSBURG -- Justin Verlander wasn’t going to assume that the easiest answer was the right answer.
Verlander started on short rest Tuesday night at Tropicana Field, had a short outing and the champagne remained on ice for an Astros team that fell, 4-1, and now must head back home for a winner-take-all Game 5 of this American League Division Series against the Rays on Thursday. The guy who “Verlander-ed” (in the popular parlance of Rays manager Kevin Cash) Tampa Bay in Game 1 was himself “Ray-ed” in Game 4, and the dot connecting isn’t difficult, if you want to go that route.
Verlander wasn’t willing to.
“The low-hanging fruit is to say this was short rest and that’s the reason why,” he said. “I don’t think so. I felt good physically. I just didn’t execute.”
Verlander lasted only 3 2/3 innings, allowing four runs on seven hits, including two homers, with three walks and five strikeouts. It was essentially the shortest postseason start of his career, since the only one shorter was his one-inning outing for the Tigers in Game 1 of the 2011 ALDS that was cut short by rain. When Verlander started again in that series just three days later, it was the only short-rest start of his Hall of Fame-worthy career … until Tuesday.
With Houston one win away from punching its ticket to the AL Championship Series against the Yankees, manager AJ Hinch gave the ball to Verlander in lieu of rookie Jose Urquidy. The move was understandable -- particularly with a fully rested Gerrit Cole available for the potential Game 5 -- but not without risk. Pitchers in the postseason in the Wild Card era had an unflattering 4.60 ERA in 121 previous starts on fewer than four days’ rest between starts.
For power pitchers like Verlander, there is added danger of diminished stuff or control. Verlander didn’t have the former issue, but, whether because of the short rest or not, he was bitten by the latter. While his four-seam fastball averaged 95.1 mph, his slider, in particular, didn’t have its usual movement. Neither did the sole changeup he threw -- the one Tommy Pham crushed over the left-center-field wall for a solo homer that got the Rays’ party started in the first.
“Once I got out there, I pretty quickly realized the control was not where I’d like with the fastball, and then the slider was just kind of spinning all night really,” Verlander said. “It wasn’t doing a whole lot.”
Pham’s blast was the first blow, before a Ji-Man Choi walk and an Avisaíl García single put two aboard. Travis d’Arnaud grounded an RBI single through the left side to make it 2-0, and Joey Wendle followed with a run-scoring double to make it 3-0. Willy Adames added a solo homer in the fourth after completing a brilliant relay throw home to cut down José Altuve at the plate.
The Astros wound up with the tying run at the plate in the ninth, but they could not recover from Verlander’s rare rough outing. Hinch had to deploy five guys in his bullpen, including would-be starter Urquidy, who pitched 1 2/3 scoreless innings but threw 47 pitches in the process -- an indication that he might have had some shaky moments himself, if given the starting opportunity.
Prior to this outing, Verlander had allowed just three runs in 25 2/3 innings for his teams in potential postseason clinchers. So this was an uncharacteristic display on many levels. And just as short rest was easy to blame for the outcome, the decision was easy for some to second guess. So it goes in a results-based business like baseball.
Hinch, however, expressed zero regret. He admitted to some unease with the unknown that was Verlander on short rest, but it’s the decision he'd make again, given the chance.
“In the postseason, you ask somebody to do something that's not normal, it's always a little nerve-wracking,” Hinch said. “But [Verlander] felt great, and he made a lot of really good pitches and got a lot of swings and misses [12 among 84 pitches]. I would have felt bad with any decision that led to three runs in the bottom of the first. If we would have gone with Urquidy and he would have done that, it would have been, ‘Should you have put a rookie in that situation?’”
The decision, of course, had a very attractive failsafe in Cole for Game 5. And the Astros feel pretty good about putting their season in the right hand of the guy who has given up just 29 earned runs and struck out 41.6 percent of batters over his last 154 1/3 innings.
Still, they weren’t hoping -- or expecting -- it would actually come to that.
“Obviously not the way you would script it,” Verlander said. “It sucks.”