The Astros are one win from the title and have Justin Verlander going in Game 6, but the future Hall of Famer is winless in his World Series career.
The plaque that will one day hang in Justin Verlander’s honor in Cooperstown will boast a number of notable accomplishments: Cy Young Award winner, American League Most Valuable Player, one of only six pitchers in history to throw three no-hitters.
One thing it won’t be able to claim — not yet, anyway — is that Verlander won a game in the World Series. For how dominant Verlander has been over the past 15 years, his record on the game’s biggest stage remains the most puzzling aspect of his career.
His record reads like this: six starts, a 5.73 ERA, and zero victories. Verlander is the only pitcher in World Series history to make six starts without earning a win. Only Don Newcombe and Carl Erskine of the old Brooklyn Dodgers have a higher ERA among pitchers with at least five starts.
Verlander has a chance to change all that on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park when he takes the mound for Game 6 with the Houston Astros just one win away from their second World Series title. If Verlander wins, he’ll erase the memories of all his past Fall Classic failures. Should he lose, though, Verlander will forever go down as a pitcher who came up short when it mattered most.
Verlander has been in this situation before. Just two years ago, in 2017, he started Game 6 against the Los Angeles Dodgers with the chance to close out the series. For the first five innings he looked like he would do just that, retiring 15 of the first 16 batters he faced with eight strikeouts. In the sixth inning, though, Austin Barnes led off with a single before Verlander hit Chase Utley in the foot with a two-strike slider. When Chris Taylor doubled down the right-field line, again on a two-strike pitch, the Dodgers tied the game 1-1. They would take the lead with a sacrifice fly and go on to force a deciding seventh game with a 3-1 win.
That’s a memory Verlander would like to forget. And for much of the 2019 season, he’s been a pitcher the Astros can be confident sending out there in a pivotal game with perhaps their season on the line.
Verlander re-wrote the baseball record books this season. His .803 WHIP was the fourth lowest since 1900, behind only Clayton Kershaw in 2016, Pedro Martinez in 2000, and Walter Johnson in 1913. He surrendered only 5.53 hits per nine innings, a mark exceeded only six times in the past 120 years (Martinez in 2000, Nolan Ryan in 1972 and 1991, Luis Tiant in 1968, Dutch Leonard in 1914, and Ed Reulbach in 1906). At 36, Verlander is the oldest pitcher to win 21 games in a season since Curt Schilling in 2004.
But for how good he was in the regular season, Verlander has struggled at times so far in this postseason. He’s given up four runs in three of his four starts, something he did only once in 15 starts after the All-Star break. In Game 2, the Nationals got their first two runners on before Anthony Rendon doubled off the left-field wall to take a 2-0 lead before Verlander had even recorded an out.
It’s those slow starts that have doomed Verlander so far. He’s given up multiple runs in the first inning in all three of those starts in these playoffs. Astros manager A.J. Hinch says the three teams they have played — the Rays, Yankees, and Nationals — have all looked to jump on Verlander early.
“There’s been some really tough top of the orders that he’s had to face this playoffs,” Hinch said on the eve of Game 6. “All three teams that we’ve played put pressure on you from the very beginning. I think with a lot of elite pitchers, power pitchers specifically, for them to catch their rhythm and their timing is very critical. Because if you don’t get him early you never get him.
“Now, once he does find all three of his pitches and he finds his slot where he likes…watch out because he can rattle off a number of outs in a row.”
Verlander settled down after that rough first inning in Game 2, holding the Nationals off the scoreboard until Kurt Suzuki’s home run to lead off the seventh inning. His final line was six innings pitched, seven hits, four runs, and six strikeouts.
Houston has to hope he does even better on Tuesday, for the Nationals are countering with their own flame-throwing right-hander, Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg earned the win in Game 2 last week, giving up only two runs in his six innings. So far this postseason, he’s given up six runs in 28 innings for a 1.93 ERA. His career ERA of 1.34 in the playoffs ranks behind only three Hall of Famers — Sandy Koufax, Christy Mathewson, and Eddie Plank — among pitchers with at least six starts.
If Strasburg can beat Verlander again, the Nationals will hope that Max Scherzer will be ready to go for Game 7 after being scratched from Game 5 with neck spasms. The advantage will then be firmly in the corner of the Nationals. For Verlander, more than the World Series is on the line on Tuesday in Game 6. He’s also pitching for nothing less than his legacy as one of the best pitchers the game has ever seen.