HOUSTON -- Justin Verlander was just about perfect. Close enough to flirt with something special. Close enough to sense it was possible. This is what the Astros have come to expect from him.
Two pitches got him on Wednesday night, though. In a season when he has been stung by the home run ball, Verlander surrendered his 32nd and 33rd homers of 2019 in a 2-1 loss to the Tigers at Minute Maid Park.
Tigers first baseman Ronny Rodriguez tagged him in the fifth inning after Verlander opened the game by retiring 14 straight Tigers. He then retired another 10 straight before catcher John Hicks got him to lead off the ninth inning of a tie game.
That was it. Verlander didn’t allow another baserunners and did not pitch from the stretch once. He struck out 11 and finished the 2-hour, 12-minute contest in a crisp 99 pitches. In so many ways, it had the look of another Verlander masterpiece.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” he said. “Obviously, you want to come away with a win. You want the team to win. One bad pitch in the ninth inning. We battled back, and I give it back in the ninth. It’s kind of one of those games. I don’t blame anybody but myself. I could have done a better job executing a pitch there in the ninth inning.”
And there was this odd twist from an Astros team that does not make many mental mistakes: Jose Altuve was thrown out at third base to end the bottom of the eighth inning with rookie slugger Yordan Alvarez on deck, and the game ended with catcher Robinson Chirinos thrown out attempting to stretch a double into a triple with Michael Brantley, set to pinch-hit, in the on-deck circle.
“Guys are scratching and clawing to get a run across any way they can,” Verlander said. “I’ve seen Altuve do something like that, use his legs to get us an extra run or win ballgames on his own. I don’t fault those guys at all. They were playing hard. I’m sure they’re probably upset with themselves. As long as somebody’s playing hard, I don’t think anybody ever takes offense. I want those guys to play with that passion every single day.”
Verlander had double-digit strikeouts for the seventh straight start, becoming the fifth player in Major League history to do so, joining Chris Sale, Pedro Martinez, Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson. Sale and Martinez both made it eight straight, with the lefty doing so twice.
But on Wednesday, four Detroit pitchers held the Astros to just six hits.
“There’s not a lot to say after a game like this,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “We all watched it. It’s one of the most unique games, weird games.”
Because the game played out the way it did, the baserunning was a postgame focus. Hinch said if he’d been able to push a pause button during the plays, he might have done so.
“It’s all result-oriented,” Hinch said, “but I understand where these guys are coming from when you have a game like this. J.V.’s pitching his tail off. When the results happen like that, it sucks. You’d like to get ‘em back.”
These Tigers are rebuilding, and there are few familiar faces from Verlander’s 13 seasons with the club. However, one of them is designated hitter Miguel Cabrera, who, like Verlander, has already punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame. As Cabrera stepped into the batter’s box in the top of the first inning, Verlander tipped his hat and then induced a flyout to center field.
“Fun facing him,” Verlander said. “We’ve had so many battles together, and then to be on the other side of it, that’s the first time I’ve faced him. You like to try to stay focused, but he’s up there joking around. First at-bat, he pops up on a curveball, and he’s like, 'Curveball, curveball, OK.' I just know Miggy so well, so I kind of laugh at him. As the games going on, it’s 1-0, 1-1, there’s no more joking around time then. Had to bear down.”
Chirinos had four of the Astros' six hits with a double in the second inning, single in the fourth and game-tying homer in the seventh. Had he made it to third base in the bottom of the ninth, he would have had the first cycle of his career.
Instead, he stood before a sea of cameras after the game and put the defeat squarely on his own shoulders.
“I never seen a game like this,” Chirinos said. “I feel like I have a great game and throw it away like that. I feel like it’s all my fault. When you make a mistake like that, you don’t deserve to win a game.”
Chirinos hit the ball into the right-center-field gap, and as he rounded second, he did not look at third-base coach Gary Pettis.
“I should have looked to Gary,” Chirinos said. “I was running with my head down. That’s a mistake you make when you don’t look to third base. That was bad baserunning for us.”