HOUSTON – On the landing beneath the home dugout at Minute Maid Park on Friday, nine towels were laid out, one next to the other. Even on the days when his right arm burns, when the mileage run up over a career taxes his muscles and burdens his ligaments and angers his tendons,
Part of this is routine, as Verlander approaches every start with a quotidian obsessiveness, more to stimulate muscle memory than fulfill some superstitious sacrament. Beyond that is what these nine towels imply. Much as all starting pitchers want to throw a complete game, they understand the limitations of their talent, modern baseball’s aversion to long starts and the place where they intersect, typically the sixth inning or so. Verlander operates under no such strictures. He is 1 of 1. What goes for others does not apply to him.
This is earned through more than a decade of excellence, an arm seemingly impervious to age and a focus that’s less laserlike than it is Jedi, as though he doesn’t stare in straight lines but around obstacles and bends moments to his will. And so when Game 6 of the American League Championship found itself in Verlander’s hands Friday night, the
Two towels remained at the end of Game 6. The other seven had wiped away the sweat that was the natural detritus of every inning that ended with another zero on the Yankees’ score line. At the most crucial moment, in the most vital game, of course Justin Verlander, one of the greatest pitchers of his generation, twirled seven shutout innings in a 7-1 victory that forced a winner-takes-all Game 7 at 8:10 p.m. ET Saturday. These are the games for which he exists. Anything less would’ve belied his raison d’être.
“This,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said, “is why he does this.”
This is why,
“I literally love Justin Verlander,” Astros star
“That speaks for everybody,” Hinch said.
Verlander cruised through the first five innings and entered the sixth with a three-run cushion after the Astros’ offense, dormant bordering on nonexistent for the series’ first five games, parlayed three walks from Yankees starter
The Yankees advanced past first base for the first time in the sixth, when a pair of hits brought up the dangerous
The biting slider, the curveball Astros pitcher
“He’s always in attack mode. Especially here in the playoffs,” Astros starter
The Yankees reciprocated that feeling in the seventh. Verlander issued a leadoff walk to
“He has virtually been perfect,” Hinch said, and this isn’t much of an exaggeration. In five regular-season starts for the Astros, he allowed four runs in 34 innings. And in the ALCS, he has struck out 21, walked two and allowed one run in 16 innings. When Hinch impelled the Astros’ front office to bring reinforcements, he imagined moments like this, where Verlander gifted the Astros another opportunity to win the pennant.
Game 7s are notoriously unpredictable, full of quick hooks and snap decisions, a second guesser’s dream. The Yankees will start their old warhorse,
Houston was batting .144 in the series before that inning. Altuve led off with a home run.
“This offense is just a monster. It’s a sleeping giant,” Verlander said. “And we had an unfortunate time to fall into a bit of a slump as a team. But there was no question these guys were going to break out, it was just a matter of time. Thankfully that wasn’t next year.”
Suddenly the colossal home run
Now, understand, baseball players, coaches, managers – they love calling shots. Their collective batting average is far worse than the Astros’ in the ALCS. Still, it’s a pastime in which Hinch frequently engages, too, because it’s fun. Before Game 6, he poked his head in the coaches’ office. Today, he said, we’re going Verlander, Peacock, Giles, and we’re going to win 7-1.
Justin Verlander records eight strikeouts over seven innings of scoreless ball against the Yankees, forcing a Game 7 in the ALCS
After the game, assistant hitting coach Alonzo Powell swung by Hinch’s office.
“You’re [expletive] Nostradamus,” Powell said.
Powell didn’t ask for a Game 7 prediction. He knew better. The Game 6 call came to Hinch on his pregame run. He takes 35 minutes to himself, goes around the stadium, clears his mind for what’s to come. He’ll relish the fact that in a series in which the home team has won all six games, the Astros will benefit from a crowd even livelier than the 43,179 at Minute Maid for Game 6. He’ll spend plenty of time thinking about how best to leverage his pitchers and how to outfox Joe Girardi, whose Yankees are 4-0 in win-or-go-home games this postseason. He’ll do so knowing he probably doesn’t have the pitcher who got him here.
When asked if he could pitch in Game 7, Verlander’s lips spread into a sly smile, and he said: “I don’t know.” Even if Verlander lives for this, the long nights of October that test a man, where every pitch is an amp cranked to 11, he is, too, a man with limitations.
If all goes well, Game 7 will necessitate just one towel for Justin Verlander. Not to dry his hands and face after he pitches. To wipe the champagne out of his eyes.