The Houston Astros are widely regarded as one of the most forward-thinking organizations in the game today. So, it’s perfectly baseball of them to jump out to a 2-0 lead in the ALCS in the most old school fashion possible. Dallas Keuchel was excellent for seven scoreless innings in Game 1 on Friday. And in Game 2, Justin Verlander absolutely undressed the New York Yankees with a masterful complete game performance. Dominant starting pitching is still the best weapon in the game, folks.
Verlander was incredible, threshing a tough Yankees lineup down to the roots for nine full innings of work. He struck out 13 to just one walk, allowing just one run. The fastball crackled with precision, while his slider and curveball left hitters flailing at ghosts all afternoon. He was in the Yankees’ heads by the late innings, leaving hitter after hitter baffled, overpowered, and defeated.
Verlander threw a mind-boggling 93 strikes out of 124 pitches in the contest. According to ESPN’s Jayson Stark, only one postseason start since these things have been recorded featured more strikes thrown by a pitcher.
No starter had come out to start the ninth inning of an ALCS game since 2012. Of course, Detroit Tigers fans didn’t need to guess who had done it last. Verlander’s own 8 1⁄3 inning bullying of these same Yankees was in many ways the final collapse of a New York dynasty that had loomed over baseball for two decades.
Verlander’s 13 strikeouts marked the seventh postseason start of his career in which he had recorded 10 or more. That is the most in the history of the game. No one else has punched out 10 batters more than five times in the postseason. Obviously, there are far more playoff games in the modern era, but it’s still a heck of a category to own. No one had thrown a 13-strikeout complete game in the postseason since Tim Lincecum pulled the trick in 2010.
The superlatives go on and on for Verlander. But, like most great performances, he had some help. Josh Reddick and the fine Astros defense helped him out with a couple of stellar plays. A few hard-hit balls just didn’t have enough loft. But 13 strikeouts and a ton of weak contact despite absolutely filling up the strike zone early in counts testified to the stuff, and more importantly, the incredible mental edge that Verlander carried to the mound.
Fans in Detroit are used to Verlander’s combination of dominant stuff and mental and physical endurance. A complete game was surprising, but certainly not unthinkable. Judging by the reactions of the baseball world on social media, though, what happened to the Yankees on Saturday seemed almost freakish.
People are often quick to talk about Verlander’s ability to dominate deep into games as an inexplicable gift. It’s been obvious for years that the big righthander is one of the most physically gifted pitchers of all time. But physical ability is only part of it. It’s important to put that start in its proper context as a function of Verlander’s preparation and competitive drive.
The 34-year-old brings as much intensity, focus, and pitch-by-pitch commitment as any pitcher ever has. His offseason conditioning is legendary. He gets better as the season goes along by design, working to be at his best, with plenty of gas in the tank, in October. This isn’t just a gifted arm, but one tempered through hard work, experience and absolute commitment to being the best in the game.
To his credit, Astros manager A.J. Hinch understands that he’s dealing with a singular individual in his recently acquired ace. Hinch made it clear that while short, max effort outings and monster bullpens have taken their place as a viable alternative to old school dominant starting pitching, he recognized that in Verlander, he had a weapon capable of defying new school proscriptions on what is possible for a starting pitcher.
After the seventh inning on Saturday, Hinch asked Verlander if he was good to keep going. He brusquely replied that he was. And so Hinch bet on his guy and won.
"Sometimes you have to combine what you know with what you see," Hinch said. "And that's really hard to do in this job. Obviously, it's a results-oriented game. When it works out, you feel great about it; if it didn't work out, I would have felt terrible about it. But when you see him finish games the way that he finishes, it's really hard to take him out of that moment.”
The Astros have a long way to go yet to reach their ultimate goal. But in six short weeks, they’ve gone from a team that believed they could win a World Series to one that knows it can. Verlander is proving it to them every time he takes the mound. Old school and new school have joined forces in Houston, and the results have been brilliant.