Houston Astros

Houston Astros’ Justin Verlander only getting better with age

Even at age 36, Houston Astros right-hander Justin Verlander showed on Thursday he’s not declining. In fact, he may be better than he’s ever been.

Houston Astros starting pitcher Justin Verlander turned 36 years old a month ago, but he’s not showing any signs of slowing down yet.

Verlander had another solid Opening Day start on Thursday, pitching seven innings and giving up three hits and an earned run while striking out nine to lead Houston to a 5-1 win over the Tampa Bay Rays. Verlander has now given up just one run in 13 innings over his two Opening Day starts with Houston, and lowered his ERA to 1.63 the last seven times he took the mound to begin the season.

It wasn’t a strong beginning for the veteran right-hander. Verlander gave up a lead-off home run to Austin Meadows, then a single to Tommy Pham. In the second inning, he walked Yandy Diaz and hit Joey Wendle. Verlander, though, settled down from there and didn’t surrender another hit until the seventh.

Verlander admits his struggles early didn’t bother him because he’s seen it all before in now his 15th year in the Majors. “Gave up the lead-off homer and just told myself I’ve been here before. Just hit the reset button real quick,” he said after the game.

“I didn’t quite have it the first inning and the first few batters of the second. Just kind of flipped the switch. Something clicked with my mechanics and was able to go from there.”

Verlander is now at an age when he should be on the downside of his career. Instead, the exact opposite is happening. Verlander appears to only be getting better. In 2018, his first full season with the Astros, he led the American League with 290 strikeouts and finished second in Cy Young balloting to Tampa’s Blake Snell, the same pitcher he matched up against on Thursday. His 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings last year was a new career-high, and his 2.52 ERA was his lowest since his MVP season of 2011.

Verlander is also getting stronger with age. Last year his average fastball velocity was 95.1 MPH, three MPH higher than in his last years in Detroit. Ironically, it was a pitch he’s removed from his repertoire in recent years that saved him on Thursday. Verlander threw 22 percent sliders last year compared to eight percent in 2011. At the same time, his changeup usage fell from 16 percent to under two percent a year ago. But today he started going back to the changeup as his other pitches weren’t working, throwing it 11 times in his 102 pitches.

“I kind of leaned on it early,” he said. “Didn’t have much feel for my slider or curveball. That changeup kind of saved my day. Funny enough I probably threw it more today than all last year.”

The Astros rewarded Verlander’s career longevity by giving him a two-year, $66 million contract extension on Sunday. The deal will keep him in Houston through the 2021 season when he’ll be 38. The way he’s pitching right now, though, he’ll probably still be striking batters out even then.

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