HOUSTON -- Three months ago, the Houston Astros prioritized winning their second and third World Series titles before their first. The club was in first place at the trade deadline, as they had been all year, yet their only move was to add veteran reliever Francisco Liriano. The prospect cost for other additions was deemed too high.
The disappointment that the Astros did nothing beyond add Liriano at the trade deadline ran so deep that Dallas Keuchel, the staff ace and one of the faces of the franchise, went on the record to say he wasn't happy. "I feel like a bunch of teams really bolstered their rosters for the long haul and for a huge playoff push, and us just kind of staying pat was really disappointing to myself," he said.
One month later, the front office and the players got on the same page. The Astros swung a trade with the Tigers to add Justin Verlander on Aug. 31, minutes before the deadline to acquire players and have them be eligible for the postseason roster. The 'Stros gave up the prospects and got the rotation reinforcement they needed. Their huge AL West lead did a good job hiding that rotation weakness.
The Tigers traded Verlander for games like Game 6 of the ALCS on Friday night. This is the moment. Three straight losses at Yankee Stadium put the 102-win Astros on the brink of elimination, then they sent their recently acquired ace to the mound in Game 6, and he saved their season. Seven innings, no runs, seven scattered baserunners and eight strikeouts. It was vintage Verlander.
"I literally love Justin Verlander," said Jose Altuve, who himself had a whale of a game.
"That's what we expected him to do. That's what he expects of himself," added Alex Bregman. "It's special every time he takes the mound. It's fun to watch him compete. He's a once-in-a-lifetime kind of teammate."
Verlander had some help during his seven shutout innings, of course. George Springer robbed Todd Frazier of extra bases in the seventh inning with a marvelous running catch at the wall. The Astros led 3-0 at the time and Frazier represented the tying run. He didn't get enough of it to hit it out, but it was a rocket and Springer reeled it in.
"I ran as fast as I could and as far as I could, and I just happened to get to it," Springer said. "You play the game to make plays like that."
Verlander was not quite as razor sharp as his masterful Game 2 performance, in which he struck out 13 in nine innings. The Yankees put a man on base in each of the first three innings, and put two men on base in both the sixth and seventh innings. Verlander appeared to be tiring following his 124-pitch outing in Game 2, but he was able to hold New York to one hit in 13 at-bats with men on base.
"There's no point in saving anything," Verlander said. "In the season you sometimes ... you get deep in the game here, let me try to save some pitches. In a playoff that's out the window, specifically in a 0-0 ballgame in a decisive game. So, when it came down to it in the sixth and seventh, back-to-back, I mean it ready did (take) a lot out of me, especially kind of back-to-back stressful innings like that."
In eight starts with the Astros -- that's five in the regular season and three more in the postseason -- Verlander has thrown 56 of 72 possible innings with a 1.13 ERA and 67 strikeouts to go with nine walks. This is 1998 Randy Johnson part two. Johnson joined the Astros and was marvelous in the second half, and into the postseason. Unlike the 1998 Astros, the 2017 Astros are scoring enough runs for their midseason ace addition.
It's hard to believe that at one point, Verlander had the same "postseason choker" label that dogs Clayton Kershaw. In his first eight career postseason starts he pitched to a 5.57 ERA and opponents hit .247/.347/.470 against him. The Tigers weren't getting over the hump to win the World Series and Verlander took some of the blame. That's the way it goes.
Over the last five years, however, Verlander has turned into a postseason monster, a big game pitcher of the first order. He owns a 1.66 ERA in his last 11 starts (and relief appearance) in the playoffs, which dates back to 2012. Game 6 was Houston's 10th game of the postseason and already Verlander's fourth appearance, yet he showed no fatigue, overwhelmed a Yankees offense that looked pretty dangerous after he exited the game, and pitched his team to a Game 7 on Saturday.
"He's been everything that we could have hoped for and more," said Astros manager A.J. Hinch after Game 6. "This guy prepares. He rises to the moment. He's incredibly focused, locked in during games, and emptied his tank tonight. And I'm so proud of him because I know how much it means to him. I know how much he puts into these outings. He chose to come here for games like this and beyond. We hope we all get to see him pitch again."