Justin Verlander's first start as a Houston Astro was a late-night affair as the Astros went to Seattle. Verlander was just about everything that was hoped for, striking out seven and giving up just one run in six innings. He made plays on defense and walked just one batter.
Prior to last week’s trade, Verlander was 5-3 for his last 11 starts with a 2.31 ERA. That’s to be expected as Verlander has acquired the reputation of a second-half pitcher. He’s a guy who gets better the deeper into the season he gets. And he’s a guy with lots of playoff experience. So his addition to the Astros seemed just the thing to make a very good baseball team even better.
There was a slight problem last night, however. The game was tied 1-1 going into the seventh inning. That’s because Mariners starter Ariel Miranda no-hit the Astros for six innings — the lone Astros run came after the bases were walked loaded and Alex Bregman hit a sac fly. Then the Mariners went to the bullpen and the Astros struck with newly acquired outfielder Cameron Maybin, who slugged a two-run home run to give the Astros the 3-1 win as the team's season record improved to 85-23.
That was also the fifth straight win for the Astros and the seventh win out of the last ten games. Suddenly, a team that was dragging through August now appears poised to fire off into the postseason as the best one in the American League.
Verlander solidifies the Astros starting rotation. He slides into the No. 2 spot in the rotation behind Dallas Keuchel, giving the team two Cy Young winners known for keeping games close and for generally going deep into games. While Keuchel is a Tom Glavine-type pitcher, known for his command, Verlander is known as one of the game’s great fireball pitchers, mowing down opposing batters with a blazing fastball and a wicked slider. If Lance McCullers can get fully healthy and back into the groove he was in in May and June, and if Collin McHugh continues to improve, the Astros will have a solid playoff rotation.
It’s pretty common knowledge that the ability to score lots and lots of runs doesn’t, on its own, lead to postseason success — witness the failure of the Baltimore Orioles the past several seasons in the playoffs. Teams that win in the playoffs generally do so on the strength of the pitching, especially on the ability of the starting staff to completely shut down opposing batters.
That has been the major asset most Astros fans felt the team was lacking, a shut-down starting staff. Lots of that anxiety was due to injuries to Keuchel and McCullers and due to McHugh having been injured for most of the season. The Astros were instead relying on journeymen like Charlie Morton and Mike Fiers while hoping the bullpen could start appearing in the sixth inning and keep the opposing team shut down.
But the Astros bullpen got stretched thin, and offenses started getting to Astros pitchers. The Astros' bats were struggling — that happens when guys like George Springer and Carlos Correa are hurt, and suddenly the team looked vulnerable. So welcome aboard, Justin Verlander.
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The Astros are an exciting team again, and lots of that is due to Verlander. It feels similar to the atmosphere around the Astros when the team acquired Randy Johnson in 1998. Johnson brought this electric attitude with him, and that lit up the Astrodome. And it really feels like that around the Astros right now.
Astros players were disappointed by the lack of any big trades at the July trade deadline. The lack of moves then and the injuries seemed to really drag the team down in August. But looking at the dugout since the trade last week, fans can observe a huge difference. There’s a look giddiness on the faces of the players. There are smiles, laughter. The swagger the team had for most of the season but had lost last month is back.
Twenty-four games remain in the regular season. That’s enough time for the Astros to get rest for some players while others, like Springer and Correa, who missed time because of injuries, play back into shape. It gives the team time to work on the rotation, to figure out just who will follow Keuchel and Verlander in the playoff rotation, and who moves to the bullpen.
Playoff baseball is right around the corner. And it’s going to be a fun time.