Houston Astros, MLB Postseason

Justin Verlander is somehow getting better with each year

Justin Verlander should be slowing down. Instead, he’s the most dominant pitcher in the game today, something the Tampa Bay Rays are finding out.

Vintage wine. Hard to find, tough to afford. When it’s on hand, though, it’s spectacular. Few things quench the palate like a ’47 Lafleur.

Justin Verlander is such a vintage. Not red or white, but shades of bright orange and deep black. Verlander briefly went out of style a few years ago. The bottle of his talents being put on the discount rack. Eventually, his old owners found a taker in the Houston Astros. This only happening because the Detroit Tigers were willing to pay $16 million of the remaining $66 million on his contract.

Since joining Houston, Verlander has become the best version of himself. In 73 regular-season starts, the eight-time All-Star is 42-15 with a 2.45 ERA, notching 633 strikeouts to 84 walks. This year was perhaps his finest, going 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA alongside only 42 walks and a career-high 300 punchouts. Most impressively? His WHIP was a video game-esque 0.803. What?

Including Friday’s Game 1 masterpiece against the Tampa Bay Rays (7 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 3 BB, 8 K), Verlander has an 8-2 postseason mark with the Astros, the unquestioned ace on a staff loaded with them.

It’s easy to forget how Verlander had become an afterthought only a few years ago. After starring for many seasons in Detroit on title contenders, it all seemed to be coming to a quiet close.

In 2014, the future Hall of Famers pitched to a 4.54 ERA in a pitcher’s park. The following year saw Verlander limited to 20 starts. In 2016, the fireballer bounced back to lead the league in strikeouts (254) and WHIP (1.00), but did so on miserable Tigers club. By the ’17 trade deadline, Detroit was trying desperately to move him with little success. The deal was struck with Houston at the proverbial 11th hour. In the ensuing months, Verlander became the capstone piece for the Astros’ first World Series title.

At 36 years old, this isn’t supposed to be happening. He should be pitching more on guile and grit more than high-90s fastballs and did-you-see-that curves. Verlander should be a monument to what brains can do for a pitcher instead of a tour de force with a live right arm and a nasty disposition to match. Of course, the intellect is there, but the power overwhelms the viewer’s picture of him.

Eventually, the arm will begin to decline. The fastball will slow, the curve will flatten and the numbers will inflate. After all, Verlander is human. We think. Until then, though, the Rays and whatever poor bastards win the other ALDS series will have to beat Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke and Wade Miley. Somehow, that’s the easier of the two tasks.

Meanwhile, Verlander will continue aging beautifully, allowing Houston to enjoy a nice vintage glass of his brilliance every few days.

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