March 28, 2023

Justin Verlander
Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

PHILADELPHIA — In the aftermath of Houston’s Game 4 win over the Phillies, as reporters started to file into the visiting clubhouse and mill around the lockers of the three relievers who’d closed out the game, Justin Verlander was pulling on his shoes and heading for the exit. When someone asked him to stop for a chat, he politely declined, saying he needed to get to bed early before his start in Game 5.

What followed probably wasn’t the biggest game of Verlander’s life; he’s started clinchers and elimination games, and win or lose on Thursday, the Astros were going to head back home with plenty of reason for optimism. But at 39 years old, in possibly his last game for the team that he’s taken to the deepest reaches of the playoffs every year since his arrival in 2017, this might have been his last chance to win a World Series game.

Verlander’s ineffectiveness in the World Series has been one of baseball’s great mysteries for 16 years. Despite innumerable accomplishments and accolades not only in the regular season but also in the ALDS and ALCS, he entered Game 5 with a career World Series record of 0–6 and a 6.07 ERA in eight starts, the worst record in MLB history.

That ended on Thursday in Philadelphia. Verlander evaded, inveigled, and scattered just enough to stay out of big trouble. He allowed just one run over five eventful innings, which was just enough to scratch the zero off the front of his Fall Classic record and move the Astros, with a 3–2 win, to within a game of their second World Series title.

It’s ironic that Verlander would finally break that losing streak on a night when he didn’t have his best stuff and teetered on the verge of disaster throughout. It’s frankly astonishing that a pitcher who looked that rocky that early and had such a good bullpen behind him was allowed to stay in a World Series game long enough to record a decision.

The Verlander Playoff Narrative is different from the Clayton Kershaw Playoff Narrative, which was about suffering bad innings at inopportune times throughout the postseason (to say nothing of his geographic and temporal proximity to Madison Bumgarner at a time when Kershaw couldn’t stop winning Cy Youngs but the Dodgers couldn’t get out of the second round). Verlander, by comparison, has no shortage of excellent work in the early rounds, dating back to his years with the Tigers. There was the complete-game shutout against Oakland in the deciding game of the 2012 ALDS; the 2013 run where he struck out 31, walked three, and allowed just one earned run in 23 innings over three starts; or 2017, where he saved the Astros’ bacon innumerable times against both the Red Sox and Yankees. The man was named MVP of that year’s ALCS, for crying out loud.

But for some reason, as soon as the National League got involved, Verlander’s right arm turned to pudding.

Justin Verlander Stats by Playoff Round

ALDS 14 79 8 1 3.08 59 7 30 90
ALCS 12 80 2/3 7 4 3.01 59 12 18 90
WS* 8 43 0 6 6.07 41 9 16 44

*Through Game 1 of the 2022 World Series

That trend didn’t reverse itself easily. In the aftermath of Wednesday’s no-hitter, Phillies left fielder Kyle Schwarber said, “I really don’t give a shit,” about getting no-hit. That comment is easy to brush off as bravado or sour grapes, but one way to get people to take you seriously is to hit a home run in your first at-bat. Verlander came out of the gate with two 93-mph fastballs (his average this season is an even 95), and Schwarber blasted the second of those into the right field seats.

As the innings progressed, Verlander looked vulnerable. He started overthrowing his fastball and missing high — which is what got him into trouble in Game 1 — as early as the second inning. He walked four, loaded the bases in the second, put two runners on in the third, and pitched just one clean inning overall. After the Schwarber home run, he allowed seven baserunners, six of whom reached with two outs in the inning. But the Phillies never put him in the seats again, and they struggled to get the measure of Verlander as he dropped breaking balls onto the top of the zone like pints of ice cream off the balcony of a dormitory high-rise. He threw 28 sliders, generating five called strikes and 15 swings; seven were whiffs, six were foul balls, and two led to outs in the field. That was his saving grace.

Even the walks came at the right times; three of the four were to Schwarber and Harper. They were the two Phillies hitters who came to the plate looking like they were interested in finding out what the rulebook says when you hit a ball so hard it turns to vapor. And while they reached base, they didn’t do any damage. Harper, who was also hit by a pitch as the tying run with two outs in the ninth, had the kind of game that makes cranky old-school types go on about lineup protection and the futility of the walk.

Against all odds, that one run over five innings was about as much as Verlander could afford to allow. The Phillies, after suffering a brutal loss in Game 4, hoped to steal a game behind Noah Syndergaard and a collection of bullpen arms. They came quite close. Syndergaard faced the 11 batters he’d been scheduled to go through — once through the order, then up until Yordan Alvarez — and pitched well, though he allowed two runs. The first of those came in the top of the first, when Jose Altuve led off with a double — one that Brandon Marsh, whose defense this postseason had hitherto been excellent, misplayed to put Altuve at third. Jeremy Peña followed with an RBI single that might have been a groundout had the infield not been drawn in, itself a curious decision in the top of the first. His second time up, leading off the fourth, Peña got a hanging 2–2 curveball from Syndergaard and nine-ironed it just over the flower beds in left field.

The first five innings of the game, in which the Astros threw their ace against the Phillies’ no. 4 starter and… (shuffles through cards)… fifth-best (?) reliever Connor Brogdon, netted Houston a lead of just one run. That advantage was extended to 3–1 in the top of the eighth, when a ground ball from Alvarez with runners on the corners and none out ate up Rhys Hoskins, who was only able to get the sure out at first rather than attempting a play on a darting Altuve at the plate. Hoskins, who was such a huge part of the Phillies’ offense in earlier rounds, had a brutal night on both sides of the ball, going 0-for-5 with four strikeouts. One of those ended the second inning with the bases loaded; he worked himself into a disadvantageous count against Verlander just when the Phillies looked like they might chase him.

The Phillies did finally put a scare into the back end of the Astros’ bullpen. Rafael Montero, unhittable (literally, in Game 4) until now, finally showed signs of vulnerability, walking two of the four batters he faced and allowing a single to another. The Phillies, briefly, had the tying run at third and the go-ahead run on base.

But this comeback, unlike the many the Phillies had produced earlier in the postseason, came up just short. Schwarber, in his last at-bat of the game, scalded a line drive down the first base line, only for it to happen upon Trey Mancini. Newly in the game after Yuli Gurriel was injured in a rundown, Mancini didn’t catch the ball so much as he squished it, but he was able to tag first and end the inning, and, hey, this is why your little league coach goes on and on about how important it is to keep the ball in front of you.

An inning later, with one out in the ninth, J.T. Realmuto keyed up Ryan Pressly and laced a drive to deep right center that looked sure to bring Harper to the plate with the tying run in scoring position. But Chas McCormick, a native of nearby West Chester, Pennsylvania, ran the ball down and clanged into the chain link fencing that protects the out-of-town scoreboard. He earned a spot on SportsCenter and might have won himself a World Series ring for his effort, even if he’ll get the side-eye from his neighbors every time he comes home for Thanksgiving for the rest of his life.

Harper’s hit-by-pitch, and a hard-fought at-bat from Nick Castellanos, followed. But the Astros just kept the Phillies at arm’s length until the 27th out had been recorded. They not only won the game, but also managed to do so without surrendering the lead at any point, leaving Verlander as the winning pitcher.

It was more chaotic and stressful than he would’ve liked, but it’s just like the Astros said after the no-hitter: Getting the win is the only thing that counts.

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