PHILADELPHIA - At long last, Astros starter Justin Verlander has his World Series victory. In his ninth career World Series start, spanning 16 years and three different decades, this was his first win. And while we know the W-L record isn't close to the best metric by which a pitcher is measured, he had earned pretty much every bit of his record to this point.
It wasn't the prettiest outing, and we'll get to that, but Verlander gutted his way through five innings and led his team to a 3-1 victory, pushing the Astros to a 3-2 World Series lead and on the cusp of their second championship in a six-year span.
Prior to Game 5 of the 2022 World Series, Astros manager Dusty Baker was asked about Verlander and he talked about how much confidence he has in his 39-year-old ace.
"Everybody's wondering, 'is he on a short leash?' I mean, no, he doesn't have a leash at all," said Baker. "I mean, he's Justin Verlander."
On one hand, it's hard to blame him. Justin Verlander is a generational talent. He's a slam-dunk, first-ballot Hall of Famer. After the season, he's almost certainly going to collect his third Cy Young and he probably should have won at least one more. Still, once he's named the 2022 AL Cy Young winner, only Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux and Steve Carlton will be higher than him in that category.
On the other hand, Justin Verlander in the World Series hasn't been that guy. Heading into Game 5, Verlander had made eight World Series starts in his career. He was 0-6 with a 6.07 ERA. Among pitchers who have worked at least 30 innings in World Series history, that was the worst ERA. Ever.
This is a guy with a career 3.24 ERA (132 ERA+) who has been under 3.00 in five full seasons. He's legitimately one of the greatest pitchers of all time. In the World Series, however, he had been arguably the worst.
He could have gone out and dominated to shut down the narrative forever. He could also have folded, gotten shelled and solidified a reputation that he can't get it done when the most pressure is on. It was somewhere between the two while being much closer to the dominant side.
To be clear, he didn't dominate. Verlander gave up four hits and four walks in five innings of work, needing 94 pitches to get through the five innings. He gave up a leadoff homer to Kyle Schwarber and then the Phillies loaded the bases in the second inning.
On the Schwarber homer, Verlander talked after the game about getting past it and focusing on the task at hand.
"Initially, you're like, that sucks," he said. "But as a starting pitcher, been there done that. It sucks because of the moment and obviously all the questions [about not having a World Series win] and the weight, but you have to rely on the hundreds of starts and thousands of pitches I've thrown before. And just kinda say, 'OK, I've given up a leadoff home run before, let me bear down and it's not going to be indicative of what's gonna happen the rest of the game.'"
Just as he said he told himself to do, Verlander persisted and he battled his tail off. This was no disappearing act.
Oh, and the other part of Baker's quote from before the game?
"Nobody can get out of trouble better than him."
Verlander proved his manager correct on this one in Game 5.
As noted, there was a lot more traffic than Baker and Verlander would've liked. After the homer in the first, he issued a two-out walk to Bryce Harper before getting a harmless flyout from Nick Castellanos. In the second, he struck Rhys Hoskins out to leave the bases loaded. He got a Bryson Stott routine flyout to leave two runners on in the third, then locked in for the fourth, getting a routine grounder before striking two out. He struck out the first two hitters in the fifth and he was getting stronger with increasing velocity, a signature feature of Vintage Verlander, who we'd see pumping 98 in the eighth inning.
Then Harper got Verlander for a double. There's no shame in that at this point, as Harper has been the single best hitter in the entire playoffs. Verlander buckled down to get Castellanos on a routine fly ball to left, despite the struggling slugger fighting off five of his offerings for foul balls.
Though this was not Vintage Verlander, it was an outing the Astros needed in this pivotal game and he delivered. He didn't shrink from the moment. He stepped up on the biggest stage and got the job done, despite traffic on the bases nearly the entire outing. He didn't have his best stuff, but he made big pitches when needed.
"It was battle," Baker said afterward. "He emptied the tank early and his pitch count got high, but that was as far as we thought we should take him. We held the lead for him. He was in trouble there a couple times, and I remember my teammate Tommy John always told me that a good pitcher can get out of trouble twice and a great pitcher three times and a so-so pitcher maybe one time.
"This guy he's been one of the best of getting out of trouble and, to me, that was his game. 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 got a great bullpen, but who can you bring in that's better than the guy that's out there in Verlander."
And now the ace has a World Series win. That World Series ERA? He's no longer in last place. He chipped away at it enough to avoid that dubious distinction (it is now Carl Erskine from the Jackie Robinson-era Brooklyn Dodgers at 5.83; Verlander sits at 5.63).
Demons have been exorcised, perhaps. The proverbial monkey is off his back. Justin Verlander has a World Series win. If his team grabs another in the next game or two, he'll have another World Series ring. His Hall of Fame resume is already more than complete, but a glaring negative has been rectified.