Culture / Sporting Life

Justin Verlander Appreciates This Houston Moment Like Never Before — Cy Young and the City

The Astros' Ageless Ace Continues to be a Perfect Match With H-Town

BY // 07.30.22

It’s easy to think of Justin Verlander like a shark — the nearly ageless Greenland kind of shark to be specific. Especially if you’re trying to get a hit off him. Or worse yet, score more than one run. But this pitching predator, one who baseball isn’t likely to see the likes of again, also has feelings. And Verlander is letting those out more, allowing himself to appreciate some of these impressive moments he keeps stacking up.

There is his wife Kate Upton writing a gushing Instagram post about him during the MLB All-Star Game festivities, something you know means something to Verlander who frequently mentions how much family support meant in this comeback from Tommy John surgery. And there is Verlander on nights like Friday at Minute Maid Park, taking in the roar — really the love — of the Houston crowd as he leaves the mound after another dominant work shift.

Really taking it in.

“I think I’ve been able to take in things a bit more this year than I have in the past,” Verlander says when I ask if he allows himself to enjoy the moment. “Not take things for granted. It was an amazing ovation. The fans are incredible. It felt really special to have them acknowledge me like that. Sellout crowd. Per usual.

“It’s nice to be able to go out and perform and have them support you like that.”

Verlander has made himself part of this hard-working, ever-striving, never-satisfied city with the way he’s embraced it on and off the field, making friends with local restaurateurs and business tycoons, giving maximum effort and making sure he’s always the most prepared guy on the field.

And Houston loves him right back.

Justin Verlander is still the 1A ace who can carry a team. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Justin Verlander is still the 1A ace who can carry a team. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Verlander is tracking towards the most impressive Tommy John comeback season ever, stalking a Cy Young at age 39. After almost two years off the mound. And with two months left in the season, there is no way Verlander can be considered anything but the overwhelming favorite for the award.

He is 14-3 with a 1.81 ERA after befuddling the Seattle Mariners yet again in a 11-1 Astros romp. His latest Picasso of a line? Seven and two third innings, one run and five hits allowed, five strikeouts and 94 pitches of work.

The Rays’ Shane McClanahan and the Blue Jays’ Alek Manoah — 25-year-old and 24-year-old young aces — are having great seasons. But no one is doing as much for their team or leaving the world’s best hitters searching for answers as often as Justin Verlander. That’s what Cy Youngs are made of.

The fact that Verlander is battling and currently besting two pitchers who are almost 15 years his junior for the biggest prize in pitching just adds to his ever-growing mystique.

“I mean I can’t even really put into words what that would mean,” Verlander says of possibly winning the Cy Young Award. “All of this is such a blessing after the last couple of years. Tommy John — I feel a bit redundant — but all the hard work that went into to be able to be back and be successful.

“A lot of doubters. Just kind of had to believe in myself. And my family had my back. And my teammates had my back. I can’t really. . . If that were to happen, it would just be incredible.”

Justin Verlander loves vintage cars, but there are even very few dream cars that are relentlessly driven as this 2022 Verlander model.

“Just more of what he’s done all year,” Astros manager Dusty Baker says after Verlander’s 14th. “. . . He was great. He didn’t have a lot of strikeouts, but he had them off balance. They didn’t hit but a couple balls hard off him.

“He was dealing.”

“These hitters they drive nice cars too. They make adjustments very quickly. And they’re the best in the world at what they do.” — Justin Verlander

The Justin Verlander Experience

Justin Verlander just does his thing. Marie Kondo isn’t even this efficient. After every inning, Verlander walks down the dugout, gets handed a cup of water by an attendant, takes a big swig of the water, flings the paper cup on the dugout floor (it’s a baseball thing) and retreats to the clubhouse. When Verlander is in the moment, everything is purposeful.

And Justin Verlander is always in the moment when he’s pitching. No matter what’s going on around him.

“It can be hard sometime when a pitcher has that kind of run support,” Baker says, talking about the idea that pitching with a big lead can often lead pitchers to give up some sloppy runs. “And still concentrate on getting the hitters out on the other side.

“But he’s a strong minded guy. It’s like the game was nothing nothing. He kept pitching.”

That’s what Verlander does, circumstance, bad bounce or unusual situation no matter.

Just ask the Mariners, who must look at Verlander the way that Charlie Brown looks at Lucy. The Astros’ rotation leader just keeps pulling the rug out on these would be American League West challengers from the Pacific Northwest. Verlander is now 5-1 against Seattle this season, including two wins in the last six days.

And the Astros’ seemingly ageless ace — the Greenland shark of pitchers — does not take any of that for granted.

“These hitters they drive nice cars too,” Verlander says, breaking into a grin. “They make adjustments very quickly. And they’re the best in the world at what they do.”

On this night, Verlander allows an infield single to budding Mariners superstar Julio Rodriguez to leadoff the game — and then retires 14 of the next 15 batters. Verlander is always thinking of his next adjustment, staying ahead in the cat and mouse pitcher-batter wars in real time.

“Another thing is I’ve just been attacking the zone a lot,” Verlander says. “Trying to get deep in games without throwing a bunch of pitches. I think tonight’s a good example of that. When we go up five, six, seven runs, I’m not trying to waste much.”

“I think I’ve been able to take in things a bit more this year than I have in the past. Not take things for granted. It was an amazing ovation. The fans are incredible. It felt really special to have them acknowledge me like that.” — Justin Verlander

There are maximum security prisons that provide more hope than Verlander allows. With Verlander stifling the Mariners like this, even the club’s all-in trade to acquire stud starter Luis Castillo from the Reds takes on a different sheen. Of course, it doesn’t help that the Mariners seemingly gave up all their best young prospects in the deal.

The addition of Castillo does not make the Mariners close to the equal of the Astros.

Not with Verlander and this lineup working for Houston.

Alex Bregman puts up his second straight three RBI night. Yordan Alvarez hits his 30th home run, a heat seeking missile to right that even Tom Cruise would have trouble dodging. Utility man Mauricio Dubon hits a towering shot over the Crawford Boxes and exchanges arm flexes with Yordan in an increasingly giddy dugout. Aledmys Diaz hits two home runs in his three hit evening, jumping from six to eight home runs in one magical night.

Seven different Astros get hits. Five Astros have at least two hits.

Everyone is contributing. Everyone is hitting. Everyone is having fun. It’s a Justin Verlander day.

“Great approach the last few games,” Diaz says of the Astros good feelings.

Meanwhile, Justin Verlander is allowing himself to take it all in. Like never before. To appreciate the moment just like Houston appreciates him right back.

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