HOUSTON -- One of José Altuve’s favorite T-shirts has this simple message: “I love Justin Verlander.”
At this moment, Altuve is speaking for an entire city as the Astros give the ball to Verlander on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park with a 3-2 series lead, going for their second World Series in three seasons.
There’s no one the Astros trust more than Verlander. Forget that his World Series numbers aren’t dazzling (0-5, 5.73 ERA in six starts). This is the guy the Astros want with the ball at this moment.
For Verlander, winning Game 6 would be one more milestone in a career that already features eight All-Star appearances, an AL Cy Young Award, an MVP Award and a World Series ring.
“I mean, hard to put into words,” he said. “It’s one of those things that in the moment, right now while we're grinding, trying to win it, you don't really think about it. It probably wouldn't even cross my mind or sink in until the offseason sometime.”
About the only thing he has never done is record a win in a World Series Game, and given that pitcher wins are partly a function of time and place, that’s more a trivia answer than anything else.
“This would be a nice little bullet point on a résumé that's headed towards Cooperstown,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “If he can add a season-clinching, World Series-clinching win, count me in.”
Verlander has been at his best in some of the biggest moments in Astros franchise history. He pitched seven scoreless innings against the Yankees to avoid elimination in Game 6 of the 2017 ALCS, after allowing just one run in a 124-pitch complete game in Game 2 of that series. Then in two 2017 World Series starts, he had a pair of quality starts: six innings apiece, allowing three runs in Game 2 and two runs in Game 6, though he picked up a no-decision and a loss respectively.
“His preparation is pretty unmatched,” teammate Will Harris said. “He takes in, absorbs a lot of information and uses it as much as he can. As good of a career as he's had, he's still critiquing himself on a daily basis.”
In 14 postseason appearances for the Astros, Verlander has a 3.31 ERA and .194 opponents’ batting average. That’s what the Astros expect on Tuesday.
“We believe he's going to be at his best,” Hinch said. “He loves this big stage. He loves being relied upon. He's going to be as intense as he's been probably the entire season because he knows what can happen at the end of 27 outs.
“I think for a team, I've heard a couple of our guys say this when Justin is pitching: We come to the ballpark with an absolute expectation to win. If your peers are saying that, when your team is saying that, when your manager is saying that, the fan base is going to be rocking tomorrow with a ton of confidence that JV is on the mound. That's like the biggest compliment you can give to one of your guys.”
Verlander’s 2019 regular season -- 223 innings, 300 strikeouts, 0.803 WHIP -- showed that at 36 years old he’s still elite. Either Verlander or teammate Gerrit Cole will win the AL Cy Young Award.
In short, Verlander has nothing else to prove. He started Game 2 of this World Series and allowed four earned runs in six innings and was charged with the loss.
He allowed two first-inning runs, then was charged with two more in the seventh. Like a lot of veteran pitchers, he’s most vulnerable early in the game. During the regular season, Verlander had a 3.18 ERA in the first inning, and a 2.48 ERA afterwards.
“I think with a lot of elite pitchers, and power pitchers specifically, for them to catch their rhythm and their timing is very critical, and sometimes if you don't get them early you never get them,” Hinch said. “Now, once he does find all three of his pitches and he finds his slot where he likes, where he's throwing specifically his slider, watch out, because he can rattle off a lot of outs in a row in a couple of these playoff starts.”
Verlander’s acquisition by the Astros from the Tigers on August 31, 2017, helped turn a very good team into a championship one. The 2017 Astros won 101 games, but they were finishing an 11-17 August when general manager Jeff Luhnow acquired Verlander just before the Trade Deadline for playoff eligibility.
That was the jump start they needed to go 21-8 down the stretch and ultimately win their first World Series. Verlander had a dazzling September, going 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA. He carried that hot stretch into the postseason with a 2.21 ERA in five starts and a relief appearance.
Verlander benefited from the change of scenery, as well. He devoured the Astros’ data and enjoyed being part of a young team’s energy and swagger.
“How long have you got?” Hinch said when asked about Verlander recently. “To simplify for you, he's never afraid to evolve and he's always seeking a way to get better. Just while he's been an Astro for a short period of time, I've watched him learn a pitch in a bullpen session and take it into an ALCS game and use it with the bases loaded.
“I've watched him change mid-game a game plan that he had worked 48 hours on on how to pitch a certain opponent. He's ultra prepared. He's never afraid. He believes in his convictions and he believes in his preparation, and he is aging quite well.”