'It was a good day': Verlander pleased with first start since '20

April 10th, 2022

ANAHEIM -- The first time back on the pitching mound in a regular-season game since 2020 on Saturday night brought back a flood of emotions for Astros ace Justin Verlander

He recalled his Major League debut with the Tigers nearly 17 years earlier, thought about all the hard work he put himself through to bounce back from Tommy John surgery at 39 years old and even gushed about Shohei Ohtani -- after striking him out three times.

Verlander’s return, pitching in a game for the first time since he injured his right elbow on July 24, 2020, couldn’t have gone much smoother, save for one pitch. He threw five innings, struck out seven and allowed three hits, one of which was a solo homer to Jared Walsh in the second inning that was all the Angels needed to beat the Astros, 2-0, at Angel Stadium.

“It kind of feels like my happy place,” Verlander said. “It’s like, ‘Alright, this is business as usual,’ even though it’s been that long.”

Verlander, who had his parents and his wife, Kate Upton, in the stands, admitted there were some nerves and anxiousness leading up to first pitch. The goal was to pitch well and emerge healthy, and he checked both boxes.

“It was a good day,” he said.

In many ways, it was like he hadn’t skipped a beat. After missing all of last season following Tommy John surgery, he threw 80 pitches (47 strikes) against the Angels. He threw 77 pitches in his final start of the spring Sunday, so pushing him another inning wasn’t in the plans.

“I think after that [fifth] inning particularly, that was pretty much it,” Verlander said. “I hadn’t really stressed myself like that yet. I hadn’t stressed my elbow like that yet in a game situation. That was 100 percent the right call.”

Verlander found himself in a bind in the fifth when the Angels put runners at second and third with one out and Ohtani and Mike Trout due up. He struck out Ohtani for the third time on a close pitch and got Trout to fly out to center field.

A fist pump walking off the mound punctuated the moment and game for Verlander.

“Those are the situations that are going to arise over the course of the year to give your team a chance to win,” he said. “That’s really the ballgame right there. I know we ended up losing. Noah [Syndergaard] did an unbelievable job, and all their guys did, against our boys, but right there as a starting pitcher, you’re kind of saying, ‘This is the ballgame, win or lose.’ If a big hit happens here, the game is over most likely. Nice to be able to lock down that situation.”

Ever the perfectionist, Verlander said his stuff still needs some work. He was happy with his fastball, which he threw 41 times at an average of 94.7 mph (he hit 96.1 mph in the first inning), and content with the curveball. The slider remains a work in progress, he said.

“Verlander was really good,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “I haven't seen him pitch in a while. He didn't look too bothered by his injury, either. He had his good fastball, but he really pitches well with his curveball and slider. He threw his curveball for a strike to anybody. It was pretty magnificent from him tonight."

By not pitching on Opening Day on Thursday, Verlander was able to soak in the festivities and marvel at Ohtani, who threw the Angels’ first pitch of the season and took their first at-bat. Ohtani wasn’t hitting and pitching the last time Verlander faced him in 2019.

“That was one of the most impressive, cool things I’ve seen in a long time,” he said. “I got chills. He finished the first inning, he’s leading off the next inning, the ovation, it’s awesome what he’s doing. Just really impressive. I’m a big fan. I think just because I struck him out three times doesn’t mean anything. This is baseball. He put some good swings on the ball. I made some good pitches against him, especially that big spot in the last inning. A pitch that was right on the edge, a borderline pitch. I think we’ll have a lot of fun battles.”