'Surreal' milestone: Verlander becomes active K's leader

Veteran righty surpasses childhood idol, Hall of Famer John Smoltz for 17th place

June 8th, 2022

HOUSTON -- The Hall of Fame names always make Justin Verlander take a step back and ponder his place in history and what he’s accomplished. Having names like Warren Spahn, Bob Feller and Cy Young below him on the all-time strikeout list is something he doesn’t take for granted. 

So when it was brought to Verlander’s attention Tuesday night he had passed another Hall of Fame pitcher, John Smoltz, to move into 17th place on the all-time strikeout list, Verlander couldn’t help but be appreciative and awed by the achievement. Just like so many have been awed by his career.

Verlander (7-2) struck out a season-high 12 batters in seven innings in a 4-1 win over the Mariners on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park, giving him 3,086 strikeouts for his career. He moved past former Tigers teammate Max Scherzer for the active strikeouts lead among pitchers and then zoomed past Smoltz, whom Verlander admired while growing up watching the Braves.

“I don’t know if Scherzer counts in that because he’s still playing and I’m still playing, and we’re kind of ping-ponging each other, but Smoltzy is somebody who I idolized growing up,” Verlander said. “Pretty surreal moment to hear that name.”

Verlander grew up in Richmond, Va., and cheered for the Braves because their Triple-A affiliate was located there for many years. And like many players of his age, the Braves were consistently on national television on TBS in the 1980s and into the ‘90s.

“It’s nice when it’s brought to your attention while it’s happening,” Verlander said. “It’s not like you're counting them down or anything. You’re keeping your head down and keep doing the work and trying to be the best pitcher you can for as long as you can.”

Tuesday’s outing was vintage Verlander, with the dozen strikeouts being the most he’s had in a game since Sept. 29, 2019 -- the final regular-season start of his Cy Young season with the Astros. Verlander, who threw a season-high 108 pitches, got nine of his 18 swings and misses on his slider. 

“I have a front seat to one of the best competitors I have ever seen in my whole life,” said Astros bench coach Joe Espada, who managed the game Tuesday for the suspended Dusty Baker. “This guy, how he prepares every single day, I get to watch him and get to enjoy how serious he is about his work. He knows how big this game was for us. Even though it’s June, he knows the importance of us going out there and winning this game.”

No strikeout was bigger than getting Taylor Trammell swinging through a slider to end the fourth and strand the bases loaded after Seattle had pushed across a run. That was the only time Seattle had a runner past second base against Verlander. 

“Every strikeout’s one less ball in play,” Verlander said. “Chances are better to have success. I don’t go out hunting for strikeouts really ever. They just kind of happen. And so, it was nice to see some of the adjustments I made, I think carry over into my stuff and I was able to have more swing-and-miss stuff.”

Verlander took a 19-inning scoreless streak into Seattle on May 27 and was rocked for six runs and 10 hits, including four homers, in a loss. He not only used that game as motivation when he faced the Mariners on Tuesday, but he also used it to learn from his mistakes. All six Mariners hits off Verlander were singles. 

“I think any time you have a bad start against a team, you want to get back on the horse, I guess,” he said. “It could go one way or the other, too. It was nice to be on the successful side of it, too.”

The 108 pitches are the most he’s thrown in a regular-season game since his Sept. 1, 2019 no-hitter in Toronto and marked another step forward in his return from Tommy John surgery, which cost him all of the 2021 season. 

“I think the one thing I need to be cautious of is not taking anything for granted and just continue to work hard,” he said. “I have to look at this entire season as part of my rehab process. I don’t want to be complacent and say, ‘OK, I’m back to being me and let’s go throw 120 every five days.’ I think I’m going to have to really listen to my body, especially as the innings start to build up and be cognizant that: ‘Hey, we're still not quite out the woods yet and let’s be smart about that.’”