Inside Justin Verlander’s first World Series win


PHILADELPHIA — Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander knew the stakes.

He had stepped up to the mound on Thursday for Game 5 of the World Series with plenty to prove. Winless in seven career games in the Fall Classic, he had just blown a 5-0 lead in Game 1 of this series, a game in which many believed manager Dusty Baker left him in too long. He had a 6.07 ERA in World Series games, almost three runs higher than his career average. On top of all that sat the very real possibility that this would be his last start in an Astros jersey.

And then, on his second pitch of the game, Verlander gave up a leadoff home run to Phillies left fielder Kyle Schwarber. After losing that Game 1 lead — and now giving up an early homer — even a veteran like the 39-year-old Verlander was shaken.

“It just sucks because of the moment and obviously all the questions and weight,” he said. “But you have to rely on the hundreds of starts and the thousands of pitches I’ve thrown before, and just kind of say, ‘OK, I’ve given up leadoff home runs before, let me bear down.'”

Through four innings, Verlander had labored but survived, and he had a 2-1 lead as the fifth inning — an inning he’d have to complete to be eligible for a win — began. After two quick outs, Bryce Harper lined a double to right. That’s when Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Nick Castellanos stepped into the box.

Verlander’s pitch count was approaching 90. It was his third time through the order. This time, the bullpen was active. This would be a defining moment for the future Hall of Famer.

“I was considering, after the Bryce double, whether Dusty was going to leave me in there or not,” Verlander said after the Astros’ 3-2 win. “I wasn’t sure. I was thankful for the opportunity, and thankful to come through.”

But it wouldn’t be easy.

“I thought my third at-bat against Verlander was my best of the series,” Castellanos said after the game.

The Phillies slugger had been slumping in this World Series, just 2-for-16 in the first four games, but was in the midst of his best night at the plate — even if he had little to show for it. His at-bats against Verlander were getting better and better. A first-inning fly out was followed by a third inning, 105 mph line drive that was caught by shortstop Jeremy Pena. Now Castellanos stepped to the plate with the tying run on second in front of a raucous Citizens Bank Park. The next few seconds would be high drama.

“I don’t think JV would’ve wanted it any other way,” teammate Alex Bregman said. “Those big situations, having to make big pitch after big pitch — that’s Justin Verlander. He makes big pitch after big pitch.”

During the regular season, Castellanos ranked fourth in baseball in swinging strike percentage, but on this night, he wasn’t missing. He kept fouling off pitch after pitch.

Verlander threw everything in his arsenal, beginning with sliders and fastballs, eventually moving on to a rare changeup. That pitch was hammered down the left field line — but foul.

“We could have gone a number of ways,” pitching coach Josh Miller said. “He emptied the tank and threw all of his stuff to Nick there.”

After a line drive that almost landed fair in left, catcher Martin Maldonado took a slow walk to the mound. Verlander had thrown seven pitches to Castellanos, and the count was 2-2. “It’s a big situation right there,” Maldonado said. “I want to make sure we both agree on the same pitch.”

They didn’t.

Verlander wanted to throw a curveball; Maldonado wanted to throw “something else.” His pitcher won the debate.

“Nick had, to me, looking back at Game 1, probably the at-bat of that game,” Verlander said of the two-out single that scored the first run of the Phillies’ rally against Verlander in the series opener. “Here, I find myself on the verge of a ballgame again with him up and just wanted to — just really wanted to get him out.”

Verlander threw the pitch he wanted — twice. But Castellanos took one for a ball and fouled the second curveball off.

Finally, for the 10th pitch of the at-bat, Maldonado went back to the slider. It wasn’t perfect — it might have caught too much of the plate — but it was effective. Castellanos hit a lazy fly ball to left. The inning was over.

“I just missed it,” Castellanos said. “This is a game of centimeters. If I’m on top of that ball a little bit more, we’re in a different situation for the rest of the game.

“I was doing my best to stay relaxed and try to barrel up something. I almost did.”

Verlander escaped. And by doing so, he earned his first win in the World Series, after the Astros held the Phillies to just one more run in a 3-2 victory. The relief was all over Verlander’s face after his outing — and in the long embraces he gave Baker after that at-bat, as well as Chas McCormick after a game-saving home run robbery in the ninth inning.

“They gave me the rookie treatment after the game,” Verlander said. “They put me in the cart and rolled me in the shower and just doused me with all sorts of stuff.

“It was one of the best feelings in my career.”

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