Astros ace Justin Verlander can still turn back the clock. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Justin Verlander still knows how how to seize a big moment. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Martin Maldonado and Justin Verlander are still doing dominant work together. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Yordan Alvarez knows it's thumbs up when the Astros find themselves in a big game. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Houston Astros first baseman Jose Abreu still has some big swings in him. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros catcher Martin Maldonado is a proud man who can still deliver some big hits. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Mauricio Dubon brings plenty of energy to the Astros. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Houston Astros reliever Hector Neris is a real bullpen weapon. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jose Altuve still makes this Houston Astros dynasty go. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Justin Verlander can still bring the heat. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros first baseman Jose Abreu still believes he has big October moments in him. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Justin Verlander wants another ring — and more priceless playoff moments. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Jose Altuve and Adley Rutschman may meet again in the playoffs. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros ace Justin Verlander is the Tom Brady of baseball. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros manager Dusty Baker is always ready to give someone like Kyle Tucker knuckles. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros ace Justin Verlander can still bring it. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker is a steady hand who builds confidence in his players. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros ace Justin Verlander wants another World Series ring. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Astros closer Ryan Pressly usually comes through in October. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Justin Verlander is still an imposing figure on the mound. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Samantha Scott & Kyle Tucker at the 2023 Team Up held at Silver Street Studios. (Photo by Michelle Watson)
Justin Verlander is still the 1A ace who can carry a team. But that doesn't mean he's invincible. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
Houston Astros outfielder Kyle Tucker is one of the more complete players in baseball. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
After the defending world champion Houston Astros’ third straight home loss to the 102-loss Kansas City Royals on Sunday, Justin Verlander already seemed to be starting to lock in. Verlander sat at his locker, waiting for the team bus to the airport, not saying much. Hunter Brown, the young Astros starter who dreams of being a Justin Verlander some day, sat next to Verlander, rubbing his hand over his head, frustrated with himself.
There isn’t anything that could have been said to make Brown feel better in that moment. Verlander would have to make things better for the Astros.
And on a chilly Monday night in Seattle, Justin Verlander does exactly that. When the Astros need him most — with some of their fans inexplicably seemingly already having given up hope in Twitter meltdowns galore — Verlander delivers. And then some. The 40-year-old who still may turn out to be baseball’s version of Tom Brady pitches like the uber ace that the champs desperately need.
Like the big game warrior that Astros owner Jim Crane believed he’d be getting when he pushed general manager Dana Brown and the rest of the Astros baseball operations department to get Verlander back in a trade.
After that last loss to Kansas City, Astros everyman Mauricio Dubon shoot back a simple emphatic answer when KPRC sports reporter Chancellor Johnson asks him why he still has confidence the Astros will get it done.
“We’re Houston,” Dubon says firmly, with no hint of a smile.
Verlander makes “We’re Houston” mean something in the series opener in Seattle. He puts 96 pitches of brilliance behind that mantra, makes it stand up. On this morning, “We’re Houston” is haunting the staggering (and likely soon to be playoff down and out) Seattle Mariners with a little extra oomph. Verlander shuts Seattle out for eight innings, finally leaving in the ninth inning after giving up a leadoff hit that leads to the only run charged to his name.
It ends in a 5-1 Astros win. It ends with the old ace Crane brought back beating the in-his-prime ace the Mariners gave up so much talent to acquire last season — 30-year-old Luis Castillo. It ends with the Astros a full one and a half games up on the Mariners for the American League’s sixth and final playoff spot.
With only five regular season games left to play, the Astros are in position to be heading to Minneapolis for a best-of-three Wildcard Series next week, the type of series where few would bet against Houston advancing.
Thanks to Verlander. Verlander still has a lot of that old Clint Eastwood cowboy swagger in him — and it comes out in the first real big game moment he’s faced in this second stint with the Astros.
“It felt great,” Verlander says afterwards, his postgame remarks broadcast on AT&T SportsNet in Houston. “Obviously a big series to be able to come in and set the tone. It feels good.”
Justin Verlander has always understood the moment. This ace has a sense of timing that Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld would swoon over.
Verlander makes “We’re Houston” mean something in the series opener in Seattle. He puts 96 pitches of brilliance behind that mantra, makes it stand up.
Now, the Mariners look like the team in serious trouble. The team with one of baseball’s marquee young superstars (Julio Rodriguez), the team that really played the Astros tougher than anyone in the playoffs last October despite losing in three games, is the one on the outside in this four team race for three postseason spots.
Did you ever really think the Astros would let themselves be left out of their annual playoff fun?
“Everybody in the clubhouse is a dog,” Dubon says of the Astros, the team he’s still thankful to be a part of. “It’s a matter of going (to Seattle) and taking caring of business. We did that before. And I think it’s just a matter of going there and playing baseball.”
And handing the ball to Justin Verlander.
We’re Houston. We’ve got Justin Freaking Verlander. And you don’t.
More Than Vintage Verlander, It’s a Recalibrating Ace
There will be a lot of talking about this being Vintage Verlander. But in truth, this night in Seattle is about a big game master finding another way. Verlander’s been adjusting to baseball’s new pitch clock rules (which don’t allow as much recovery or strategy time between pitches) all season, looking for ways to adapt (again) and find the best version of himself in this new reality.
He does it by leaning on breaking balls (his slider and curveball) against a Mariners lineup that can be as dangerous as a coiled up cobra. Verlander comes into this game with a 5.19 ERA in his last four starts. He gives up only three hits in this one, retires 16 straight Seattle batters at one point, strikes out eight. The Mariners could be excused for thinking they just saw a ghost.
But in reality, this is a recalibrating ace, a different version of JV. And it sure looks like Justin Verlander may have found something. Just in time for October.
“That was awesome,” Astros manager Dusty Baker says after Verlander delivers his team from doubt. “He had a really good breaking ball. Two of them. Slider, real good curveball. Him and (catcher) Maldy (Maldonado) were working good together, had them off balance.”
Now the Astros have found their own sense of well being, just three or four wins from guaranteeing themselves a seventh straight playoff run. Another chance at another ring.
This is still the most proven big game team in baseball. One that has its big game ace back.
We’re Houston. Having Justin Verlander still has a lot to do with that. Jim Crane saw it, imagined what having Justin Verlander on nights like this could still mean. Now everyone else is too.