Verlander doesn't miss a beat with quality start in '24 debut

Veteran allows two runs over six innings to help Astros snap three-game losing streak

April 20th, 2024

WASHINGTON -- walked to the mound at Nationals Park on Friday night and leaned over to pick up the baseball.

He warmed up under cloudy skies and in front of a sparse crowd. The 41-year-old loosened his potent right arm to make his season debut and career start No. 510. Shoulder inflammation stalled Verlander’s Spring Training start by two weeks, then delayed his season debut for longer. The Astros need him. They entered the night with a pitching staff depleted by injuries and a mounting frustration about their laborious start to the season.

Verlander walked off the mound 90 minutes later. His final line: six innings, four hits, two runs, no walks, four strikeouts, 78 pitches (50 strikes) and a dose of inspiration.

Asked pregame what it meant to have the right-hander back, Astros manager Joe Espada said, “It’s huge just for the morale of the club. And his leadership and getting on the mound and competing. We are all excited about that.”

The veteran’s first win of the season and 258th of his career snapped a three-game losing streak for Houston. Kyle Tucker reached base four times, Jeremy Peña had three hits and Josh Hader survived a bumpy ninth in the 5-3 victory over the Nationals.

“Pleasantly surprised, honestly,” Verlander said about his start. “Kind of tried to cram Spring Training into three starts. Control wasn’t quite what I would have liked in the rehab starts, and it was just work on mechanics and try to find something to make it click.

“I think what I worked on between last [rehab] start and this start -- just being a little more directional -- I noticed in my bullpen the other day [that it] felt good, so I was like, ‘All right, that might be it.’ Carried it over to [Friday] and was able to make some pitches.”

Verlander ended the 11-pitch first inning with career strikeout No. 3,343 when Jesse Winker swung through a 94.5 mph fastball. He endured a long break while watching the Astros stake him to a 3-0 lead before he returned to the mound for the second inning. It took nine pitches for him to head back to the dugout again.

The third inning was less kind. A double off the right-center-field wall by catcher Riley Adams produced the Nationals’ first hit. Ildemaro Vargas slipped a single to right field to drive in Adams. Speedy Jacob Young bunted for a hit. But Verlander corralled the inning by picking an ambitious Vargas off second before forcing CJ Abrams to pop out. His pitch count lurched to 38, almost halfway to his expected total for his first night back in the Majors since Game 6 of the 2023 American League Championship Series.

“I think the big play of that game, it was his inside move in the third inning,” Espada said. “They got two quick guys on base, and [Verlander] -- just awareness, instincts, just knowing that those guys like to run -- put a good inside move and kind of stopped their momentum.”

“Just a crafty old vet trying to get an out any way he can,” Verlander said with a laugh.

Verlander reached 50 pitches following a 1-2-3 fourth. However, Adams proved his nemesis for the night: he homered in his second at-bat to pull Washington to within 4-2 in the fifth. Both of Adams’ hits came on centrally-located fastballs, the kind a pitcher still fine-tuning leaves sitting over the plate. Though, Verlander’s opportunity to tinker expired when he finished rehab appearances and faced an opponent in a game that mattered.

“Once the bell rings, you’re just trying to get outs,” he said.

A final 95 mph fastball finished Verlander’s return at 78 pitches. Winker watched it go by for a strike to end the sixth. He flipped his bat, displeased with the call. Verlander looked at the grass as he walked off with his glove in his right hand, having done all this before, and, finally, ready to do it again.

“Overall, I’m pretty pleased,” Verlander said.