Tonight Justin Verlander will step on a pitching mound for the 406th time in his career, counting regular season and postseason starts. It’s his office, and for years Verlander has done great work. But this will be the biggest moment of his career.
It’s a moment that Verlander has been craving for a long time. It’s a chance to prove his greatness on the largest stage.
This moment might have never happened. Verlander has only been wearing an Astros uniform for about eight weeks. It’s easy to forget that only two months ago he was still a member of the Detroit Tigers, finishing up his 13th season with the team. There was nothing for him to pitch for. The Tigers were going nowhere. But Verlander would have pitched his heart out down the stretch anyway. Because that’s how he’s wired.
A few years ago, Verlander went to pitching coach Jeff Jones and manager Brad Ausmus and told them he needed to change a few things if he was going to meet some of his goals.
“I want to be a champion and I want to be a Hall of Famer,” Verlander told them.
The righthander retooled his preparation routine. More attention to detail, more regimented schedules and workouts. No more Taco Bell the night before a start. His body was changing in his early 30s and he couldn’t simply rely on natural talent alone. In 2016, Verlander had one of his best seasons and finished second in Cy Young voting, an award he would have won if the two voters in Tampa hadn’t left him off their ballots.
In 2017, Verlander had a few tough starts in the first half of the season. He struggled with consistency. Then things clicked into place and he started to churn out efficient results. Start after start after start after start…Verlander was an ace. In his last 18 starts as a Tiger, Verlander allowed three runs or less 16 times. But his won/loss mark was only 6-5.
Then the Tigers shocked their fans by trading him to Houston as the clock struck midnight at the August trade deadline. Thrust into a pennant race, JV won all five of his starts for the Astros down the stretch, allowing only four runs. He backed that up by winning twice in the AL Division Series, one of them coming in the first relief appearance of his career. He was named MVP of the AL Championship Series after winning two games, one of them a complete game in which he struck out 13 Yankees. The ‘Strohs won the series in seven games and advanced to the Fall Classic.
So far in the World Series, Verlander has been the one starter who hasn’t been battered around. He seems made for the big stage, he seems calm while most people around him are freaking out under the stress.
Tonight in Game Six he faces something he’s never faced before: a chance to win a championship. Twice before he pitched in the World Series, but both times the Tigers were pushed aside rather quickly. JV has started Game One of the World Series twice, Game Two once, and Game Five once. He’s yet to win a game in the Fall Classic, he’s yet to pitch a magical game in the World Series. It’s the only blemish on his record, and tonight in Los Angeles, Verlander can wipe it away.
Verlander has done nearly everything a pitcher can accomplish. He’s won the Rookie of the Year Award, Cy Young Award, Most Valuable Player Award, and he’s been named MVP of the League Championship Series. No other player has ever won all four of those awards.
Verlander has two no-hitters. He’s won the pitching Triple Crown. He’s led the league in strikeouts four times and he’s one of only three pitchers to lead the major leagues in innings pitched as many as three times. He’s been extremely durable and pitched deep into games. Want evidence of Verlander’s durability? Over a span of 63 games from 2010 to 2012, he pitched at least six innings in every start. That streak is third in baseball history since 1918 behind only Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton. Both are Hall of Famers.
He’s won two winner-take-all Game Fives in the ALDS and ranks among the all-time leaders in games started, wins, innings, and strikeouts in the postseason.
He has the wow factor too. He was once able to throw the baseball over 100 miles per hour and can still hit 98 on the radar from time to time. Because he’s learned to be more of a pitcher, at this point in his career he can dial 98 in the ninth inning if he needs to.
Verlander has a lot going for him as a Hall of Fame candidate. His career statistics are starting to pile up. He’s approaching 200 wins and 3,000 strikeouts. His advanced stats are inching up the all-time list (his career Wins Above Replacement of 56.9 ranks 74th all-time among pitchers and 41st since 1945).
This postseason he’s added to his growing legend. In Game Two of this World Series, after his team lost a late lead in a game he started, Verlander emerged from the clubhouse and screamed encouragement. The gripping moment was caught by television cameras. The Astros rallied to win the game. You get the feeling that if Verlander is someday elected to the Hall of Fame, that clip will be included in his Hall of Fame intro video.
A World Series title under these circumstances would add a huge feather to his Hall of Fame cap. He’s a perfect 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA in ten games since becoming a member of the Astros. His new teammates wouldn’t be in this World Series without Verlander. If the tall righthander wins Game Six, if he improves to 10-0 and delivers the franchise’s first title, he’ll be the greatest trade deadline addition in baseball history. His place among the greats of the game will be secure.
Justin Verlander wants to be an all-time great. He’s prepared for the possibility of this moment. Two months ago it seemed like a dream. Now it’s upon him. He had to go to Houston to get it, but it’s right there for him. If he pitches the game of his life tonight, he can go anywhere he wants, including Cooperstown.