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, Justin Verlander asks for nine towels. One for every inning he plans to pitch that day.
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 Series found itself in Verlander’s hands Friday night, the Houston Astros’ season in the balance, at certain moments he forgot the inning, the number of outs, the count, even to whom he was pitching. This was about him and his arm and the most pure distillation of confidence, 200 proof, that the New York Yankees could not defeat him.
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, minutes before the Aug. 31 trade deadline, Verlander swiped his signature to waive his no-trade clause and accept a deal to the Astros from the Detroit Tigers, the organization that drafted him, reared him and helped him blossom into a star. This is why Verlander, now in an organization whose foundational ethos is to mine the knowledge available today to seek greater truths, approached this treasure trove of information with the open mind of a seeker and not the grizzled myopia of a stereotypical baseball veteran – and from it, even at 34 years old, learned, grew, improved. This is why, six days after he did use all nine towels in a 13-strikeout tour de force, Verlander was perfectly content to exit after 99 pitches: He had drained every last ounce of excellence in sixth and seventh innings that tested his mettle.
“I literally love Justin Verlander,” Astros star Jose Altuve told Fox after the game.
“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 Luis Severino into their biggest bounty of the series. Brian McCann doubled home the first run. Altuve’s bases-loaded single added two more.
The Yankees advanced past first base for the first time in the sixth, when a pair of hits brought up the dangerous Gary Sanchez with two outs. Verlander threw three straight balls. His fourth pitch was a hard slider, whose spin axis he had learned to manipulate since joining the Astros. Sanchez almost flinched at it, swinging, then stopping, and ultimately using a 3-0 green light to dribble a check-swing groundball for the inning’s final out. It was an emasculating swing, though not as bad as Todd Frazier’s feeble, wristy hack at a Verlander curveball to end the fifth.
I think he fooled Todd Frazier pic.twitter.com/1mjR2Z2BC3
— MLB Roundup (@MLB_Roundup) October 21, 2017
The biting slider, the curveball Astros pitcher Brad Peacock called “the best I’ve ever seen,” the new-and-improved changeup and the four-seam fastball teeming with life at 98 mph – this is Verlander today, as good as he was when he won the AL MVP in 2011, as good as he was in winning the three previous elimination games in which he pitched, as good as he may ever be.
“He’s always in attack mode. Especially here in the playoffs,” Astros starter Dallas Keuchel said. “He’s throwing 70, 80 percent strikes. And they’re quality pitches, too. When you couple that together, it just puts the hitter back on his heels every at-bat.”
The Yankees reciprocated that feeling in the seventh. Verlander issued a leadoff walk to Greg Bird and hit Starlin Castro. He needed 10 pitches, the final of which was the demon slider, to strike out Aaron Hicks. The next batter, Todd Frazier, launched a 96-mph fastball to center field. “I thought homer,” Verlander admitted. The ball hung up long enough for George Springer to leap, haul it in a foot from the fence and keep Bird and Castro at first and second. Four pitches later, Verlander escaped the inning, staying on the field to thank Springer for that seventh zero.
“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, CC Sabathia, and the Astros will counter with Charlie Morton, but won’t hesitate to use Lance McCullers Jr. on three days’ rest or even Keuchel on two. “I’ll be good,” Keuchel said. “It’s just my arm.” Of less concern, even with Sabathia’s six shutout innings in Game 3, is the Astros’ offense, which seemed to awaken in the eighth inning of Game 6.
Houston was batting .144 in the series before that inning. Altuve led off with a home run. Carlos Correa ripped a double. Yuli Gurriel poked a single to push Correa to third. Alex Bregman stroked a two-run double. Evan Gattis brought him home with a sacrifice fly.
“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 Brad Peacock had allowed in the eighth to Aaron Judge wasn’t of such concern. It was 7-1, a lead closer Ken Giles would hold come the ninth. Just like Hinch had predicted.
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.
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.
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