After taking a 3-2 lead in the 2017 World Series during an utterly insane 13-12 Game 5 victory, the Houston Astros are now just one win away from securing the first World Series championship in franchise history.
They should feel pretty good about their chances to win it all without needing a Game 7, thanks in large part to a man who entered Aug. 31 on a different team.
One Justin Verlander.
We all know the story by now. Verlander had already cleared waivers and was thus eligible to be traded to any team. The Tigers were talking with other teams, but things came together with the Astros. Just minutes before midnight, he waived his no-trade clause and departed the only MLB franchise he'd ever known. The Tigers drafted him second overall in 2004. To accept a deal to leave had to have been difficult, even under the Tigers' dire circumstances.
No matter. Verlander's mental toughness and raw ability more than compensated for any sort of emotional baggage.
All Verlander did with the Astros in five regular season starts was go 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA, 0.65 WHIP and 43 strikeouts against five walks in 34 innings. He was great in ALDS Game 1, outpitching possible AL Cy Young winner Chris Sale. He won the ALCS MVP after going 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA in two starts.
Let's dial in on that second ALCS win.
Remember, the Astros had lost three straight games. The bullpen had fallen shoddy and the offense was scuffling. The weight of Houston was on the strong shoulders of the new kid on the block.
For Verlander, it was business as usual and no big deal. He would hold a powerful Yankees offense to five hits (all singles) and one walk over seven scoreless innings. He struck out eight. This guy was familiar. It was Terminator Verlander we saw win an MVP in Detroit. You know, the same one who has been pitching like this for most of his career, his last three starts with Detroit and every start with the Astros.
He's admitted he's operating on a much higher level right now.
"I think the level of focus and intensity does go up," Verlander said. "It especially goes up in the playoffs. I think that that's something that you just can't sustain that over a full season. And I think I touched on this a week or so ago, but you'd be burnt out. You can't focus that much mental energy and physical drain on hanging on every single pitch that way and the crowd and the intensity, that it all encompasses, you just can't do that every single day out for 34, 35 starts. But as soon as the postseason starts you're living or dying on every single pitch, and your whole team is living or dying on every single pitch. It changes everything."
And he's been stellar for the Astros both down the stretch and in the postseason.
Now, Verlander did allow three earned runs in six innings to the Dodgers in Game 2. This was thanks to a solo home run and a two-run home run. If he does get in trouble, he'll be turning the ball over to an exhausted and now totally unreliable bullpen.
I'm still not even remotely fazed here if I'm the Astros. Home runs have been ridiculous all year and they're even more common the playoffs -- especially this World Series. The Astros ended up winning that game, too. I'd more focus on the fact that Verlander had a no-hitter with five strikeouts and had faced the minimum through 4 2/3 innings. By now, he's had time to study up on the Dodgers and can make any adjustments he needs to make before Game 6.
Plus, Verlander is no stranger to logging huge workloads. He's thrown at least 110 pitches 13 times in the regular season and once this postseason. He went 124 pitches in a complete-game effort in Game 2 of the ALCS against the Yankees.
Further, this is his last outing of the year and he can totally empty the tank. I could see 135-plus pitches.
Verlander has long relished the big moments and this presents perhaps his biggest yet.
"These [big games] are what it's all about," Verlander said. "These are the moments that you want to be a part of as a baseball player. It's everything you could ask for. It's going to be pretty intense."
This answer probably better sums up the mentality of Verlander. Before Game 5, he was asked if he would approach Game 6 any differently if it were a clincher versus an elimination.
"No, no change. Take the ball, try to win."
He saw no reason to beat around the bush. He's just straight up taking the ball and going to work. An old bootstrap mentality.
He is 100 percent the perfect guy for the Astros to start this game and close it out in Game 6 in Los Angeles.
Knowing that they could win their first-ever title with a guy they didn't even have until minutes before September just makes it all the more surreal.