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Goold: Astros' Justin Verlander completes quest that began 16 years ago vs. Cardinals

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PHILADELPHIA — The plan all those many years ago for an October night in downtown Detroit was to start lefty Nate Robertson in Game 1 of the World Series. But that was before Yadier Molina homered to put the upstart Cardinals ahead in Queens, before Adam Wainwright cold-snapped a curveball that froze Shea Stadium, before Jim Leyland, no longer facing the New York Mets in the World Series, rewrote his Tigers rotation to send a rookie right-hander against the Cardinals.

If not for that, who knows when Justin Verlander’s quest for his first win in a World Series would have commenced.

We know, 16 years later, when it ended.

One of the most accomplished and decorated pitchers of his generation, Verlander filled in a blank on his baseball card Thursday night at Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park with his first win in nine World Series starts. All it took was almost everything Houston had.

Verlander defused the middle of the Phillies’ order one last time in the fifth inning to qualify for the win. Rookie Jeremy Pena broke a tie with a solo homer in time for Verlander to be the pitcher of record, and Jose Altuve scored on a groundout to extend the lead. Trey Mancini came off the bench to make a lunging play at first base, and Chas McCormick stole the game from his fellow Pennsylvanians with a leaping catch against the scoreboard wall in center field.

The sum of all those parts sent Houston to a 3-2 victory in Game 5 of the Fall Classic, put them one win away from a championship in the best-of-seven series, and made Verlander feel like a rookie again.

His teammates shoved him in a laundry cart, rolled him into the shower, per tradition, and rained goop galore upon him.

All with affection.

“I can say I got one,” said Verlander, who struck out six in five innings. “I mean, it is just so symbolic for me that my first win in the World Series is just such a great team win. … And they rallied around me, and they were almost just as happy that I got the win as I was. Just an incredible feeling. It feels great.”

A day after finishing the Astros’ combined no-hitter, closer Ryan Pressly cinched a five-out save to assure Verlander his win. The Phillies had not lost at home this postseason until losing back-to-back games to Houston, and now the series shifts back to Minute Maid Park where Verlander and the Astros will have two chances to win one game and their first championship since 2017. That was Verlander’s first season in Houston, and he went 0-1 for them that October in the World Series. He's 0-3 overall in five World Series starts for the Astros in the past five years.

Staked to a five-run lead in Game 1 of this Fall Classic, Verlander allowed five runs to the Phillies in five innings to leave with a no decision in a game Houston lost.

An MVP, a two-time Cy Young winner on his way to possibly his third this season, and a nine-time All-Star, the swollen pimple on his career was a 6.07 ERA in the World Series.

That was the highest of any pitcher with at least 30 innings.

“We always have some things that we have to overcome, no matter how great you are,” Houston manager Dusty Baker said. “That’s what people remember. I mean, that’s – I’ve got 2,000 wins and all they talk about is I haven’t won the World Series yet. You know? So, what’s the difference? You know what I mean? So, yeah, it matters. It matters to the people. It matters to us.”

It mattered enough to Baker that he let it influence his decision.

Verlander struck out the final two batters of the fourth inning to move within three outs of qualifying for a win. Between him and that elusive “W” was the middle of the Phillies’ order in a one-run game. He struck out Rhys Hoskins for the second time and J. T. Realmuto for the first time to face Bryce Harper with two out. Verlander threw Harper 17 fastballs in the game, slipping around the former MVP with two walks in the first three innings. In the fifth, Harper lashed at a fastball to double into the corner and bring Nick Castellanos up to face Verlander for a third time in the game. Had Baker gone to a reliever, regardless of that outcome, Verlander would not have been eligible, by rule for the win.

By the book, a reliever made sense.

“I mean, this guy – he’s been one of the best at getting out of trouble and, to me, that was his game,” Baker said. “Like I’ve said many times: He’s our ace. And it’s hard to pull your ace because that’s why he’s the ace. Who can you bring in? I mean, we’ve got a great bullpen. But who can you bring in that’s better than the guy who is out there in Verlander? Yeah, it was in my heart.”

“This is our best pitcher,” catcher Martin Maldonado said. “This is our best guy.”

Way back in 2006, Detroit manager Leyland thought his two lefties, Robertson and veteran Kenny Rogers, would give him the best chance against the lefty-susceptible Mets. When the Cardinals stunned the Mets to claim the National League pennant, Leyland, his team resting for nearly a week, had his choice of starters and pivoted to Verlander. A different choice and Verlander doesn't debut until Game 3 of the 2006 series, faces a Cardinals team at Busch Stadium but not flush with pennant-clinching adrenaline. 

The 23-year-old went 17-9 in the regular season with a 3.63 ERA. He was on his way to winning the Rookie of the Year Award, finishing seventh in the Cy Young Award voting, and receiving MVP votes. He was steady if not stellar in his first two playoff starts.

With the Cardinals scrambling for pitching and turning to Anthony Reyes, the bill of his cap ironed flat, the Game 1 would be a first for the World Series with two rookies starting.

Three innings in and Albert Pujols greeted Verlander with a home run.

That produced two of the seven runs the Cardinals scored on Verlander in the game. Six days later he started Game 5, allowed three runs (one earned), and lost as the Cardinals clinched the 10th World Series title in club history.

He lost Game 1 to the Giants in 2012.

He lost Game 6 to the Dodgers in 2017.

He lost games 2 and 6 to Washington in 2019.

He lost Game 1 to the Phillies.

He was 0-6 in the World Series and 259-138 everywhere else.

“It does not make sense,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “Well, I think there were a few where we didn’t score any runs for him. He’s been the ultimate leader, the ultimate workhorse, the ultimate top of the rotation guy. He sets the tone.”

Two pitches into his start Thursday it was not a favorable one.

Philadelphia’s leadoff slugger Kyle Schwarber lasered the second pitch of the first inning for a game-tying home run. A one-run lead claimed in the top of the first was gone one batter into the bottom of the first. Here it goes again. Another Fall Clunker in the Fall Classic.

“As a starting pitcher – been there, done that,” Verlander said. “It just (stinks) because of the moment and obviously all of the questions and weight. But you have to rely on the hundreds of starts and the thousands of pitches I’ve thrown before and just kind of say, ‘OK, like, I’ve given up leadoff home runs before.’ Let me bear down. It’s not going to be indicative of what’s going to happen the rest of the game.”

Verlander, 39, got better as the game aged.

In the second inning, his 33rd pitch of the game led to his third walk and the bases loaded for Hoskins. Verlander would walk four in the game – more than he had any previous start this season or any other start in the playoffs. The walk to Schwarber came after he three eight balls in 10 pitches, and it put him in his first bind of the game. He responded by striking out Hoskins to end the inning. He pushed from there.

At one point, Verlander struck out five consecutive Phillies.

As Castellanos came to the plate with Harper on second in the fifth inning, Baker did not go to the bullpen, did not ask Maldonado to stall. He let Verlander throw the pitches that determined his decision. Castellanos fouled off four pitchers to keep the count level, 2-2. He hammered a changeup, but foul. That prompted a meaning on the mound for what to do next. Verlander wanted to throw a slider. Maldonado wanted something different. Verlander won. Castellanos did not go chasing for the curve out of the zone, but he did lift the next pitch, the 10th pitch, for a fly out on a slider.

That was Verlander’s 95th and final pitch.

“The guy has been there before,” Maldonado said. “Guy has been doing it for almost 20 years now. He knows. He knows he’s prepared. He knows what he’s got to do. He knows to attack hitters. Good pitchers do get into trouble. They get themselves out of trouble, too.”

With the lead and the chance to get Verlander that first win, the Astros added necessary insurance in the eighth inning. In the bottom of that inning, Schwarber pulled a pitch hard down the first base line. If it raced through, the game would have been tied, at least. Verlander’s win would vaporize. But Mancini fell to his knees, smother the grounder, and as he recovered in foul territory tagged first base with his foot to end the inning.

In the ninth, Realmuto drilled Pressly’s pitch to deep right-center fielder. McCormick said later he thought it was a home run – and then realized he had a play on it.

He called on a skill he had not used in years.

“I used to dunk in high school,” the 6-foot McCormick explained. “Reached up and thought about basketball. I used to be able to dunk the basketball like an alley-oop. Go up with the ball. OK. Go get it.”

McCormick caught the ball and cradled it as he fell to the warning track.

A native of a nearby West Chester, Pennsylvania, McCormick said he would have “laid all night” on the warning track if not for the fact the Astros needed one more out. Even in that brief moment on the track, he sensed his catch could get Verlander that first win.

As McCormick waited to do a television interview after the game, the weight of what his catch did became clear when Verlander ambushed him for a hug, a strong, bear hug.

“Verlander? Getting Verlander the win? It’s Justin Verlander,” McCormick said. “I grew up watching him. He came up to me, huge hug, and I was like, ‘Oh, man, this feels so good.’ It’s just him.

“Just Justin Verlander.”

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