Justin Verlander made the Astros better and stronger.
Justin Verlander made the Astros better and stronger.
Photo by Jack Gorman

Justin Verlander Made the Astros Houston Strong

August saps the will to live of every Houstonian. The unbearable heat and humidity make existence miserable. Yet the joy that is the Houston Astros winning the World Series would not be possible were it not for the month of August.

It was in August that the ability of the Astros to win games appeared to have vanished. The team went 11-17 that month, and it was the only losing month of the club’s 101-win campaign. The Astros were still a no-doubt playoff team that was running away with the American League West. But they just weren’t playing with the same passion and killer instinct as earlier in the season, when they had the best record in baseball.

Injuries afflicted the starting rotation throughout the season. Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. spent significant time on the disabled list. Charlie Morton was on the DL, too. Collin McHugh spent a large portion of the season injured, and as August progressed, the bullpen showed signs of fatigue from overuse.

The rest of the lineup had also been hit with injuries. George Springer, Carlos Correa, Brian McCann, Evan Gattis and Colin Moran (brought up from the minors to replace Correa) all went to the DL in July. Alex Bregman and Yuli Gurriel played with injuries. And while most were back in August, the team struggled to hit. The Astros scored just 112 runs in August while surrendering 127.

Then came Hurricane Harvey, and, while much of Houston was still under water, Justin Verlander came, too. Those events are interrelated, and without either, the Astros do not win the World Series.

The Astros were in Anaheim, playing the Angels when Harvey hit Houston and the Texas coast. Unable to return home for a series with the Texas Rangers due to flooding — and forced to play that series in Tampa Bay because the Rangers did not want to give up home games against the Astros in late September — the Astros watched from afar as the city coped with a seemingly never-ending deluge of water.

“There’s such a detachment and isolation from what happened,” World Series Game Seven winning pitcher Charlie Morton told ESPN the Magazine. “You feel guilty that you weren’t there to do something.”

The Astros returned to Houston as soon as they could with players, coaches, and staff jumping headlong into recovery efforts. They headed to shelters and assisted efforts to bring in supplies. And that’s when they discovered Houstonians were looking to their hometown team to give the battered city something to cheer for.

“There are thousands of people who don’t have homes, don’t have possessions, and they’re rallying around us,” World Series MVP George Springer told reporters back in September. “And it’s our job as the sports team to do anything we can...to provide anybody with some sense of relief, some sense of break.”

It was while the Astros were in Florida playing the Rangers at a mostly empty Tropicana Field that the possibility of Justin Verlander joining the rotation because a possibility. The Astros and Detroit Tigers had discussions back in July about Verlander, but the talks went nowhere. Astros players felt let down by the lack of big name additions to the team — the team almost had a deal for Baltimore Orioles closer Zach Britton, but the deal fell apart at the very last minute.

When it appeared that the Tigers were once again open to trading Verlander, one of the best starting pitchers in baseball for over a decade, Astros owner Jim Crane and GM Jeff Luhnow felt compelled to make a deal happen. They thought getting Verlander would help to revitalize the spirits of the players and the City. It would show that ownership, which had been reluctant in the past to buy expensive players, was serious about going all in on a World Series run.

It was literally a last-second trade deadline deal, with Verlander agreeing to play for Houston, and the Astros frantically filing paperwork with the league office in New York just before the calendar flipped from August 31 to September 1. If either party had waited any longer to make the deal, then Verlander would have been ineligible for the Astros postseason roster.

Verlander immediately made the Astros better. He was healthy, brought his blazing fastball and was able to eat up lots of innings, allowing the beleaguered bullpen to get some rest. And since the Astros hitters knew Verlander was capable of shutting out the opposition each time he took the rubber, they could relax a bit and go back to just having fun.

The Astros won all five of Verlander’s regular season starts and then went 5-1 in his playoff games. He was particularly outstanding in the American League Championship Series against the Yankees, where he confounded one of the best lineups in baseball over 16 innings, giving up just one run — an feat that earned him the series MVP award. In the entire postseason, the new Astros ace pitched 29 2/3 innings, struck out 38 and gave up just nine runs.

Most importantly, he and fiancé Kate Upton embraced the Astros and the city of Houston with a passion. The team embraced him as well — Jose Altuve expressed his love for Verlander on national TV. The mood around the clubhouse lightened up considerably with his arrival, and the Astros went 21-8 to finish the regular season, entering the playoffs on a hot run with a momentum that had not seemed possible before his arrival.

Before Harvey and Verlander, the Astros looked like a racehorse fading on the backstretch, headed for an early playoff exit like the 2015 division series debacle that still haunted the club. But with the unwavering support of a city reeling from one of the worst floods in U.S. history, and a flame-throwing veteran seeking his first World Series title, too, the Astros finally delivered their miracle season, 55 years in the making.

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