Conserving his best fastballs for later in games was not Verlander’s plan, at first. Summoned to the majors in 2005, just a year after the Tigers chose him from Old Dominion with the second overall pick in the draft, he learned that major leaguers would wear him out quickly if they saw the same speed all the time.
“I was having a lot of trouble with foul balls, and I found that if I kind of slowed down a little bit and pitched to contact, I could get some quicker outs earlier in the game,” Verlander said. “That would save my better stuff for later in the game — and hopefully the seventh, eighth and ninth inning instead of the fifth, sixth, seventh.”
Fewer pitchers than ever are seeing the later innings in October. Through the division series last year, nearly 45 percent of all innings had been thrown by relievers. At the same point in this postseason, that figure had risen to nearly 51 percent: 171⅔ innings by relievers, just 165⅓ by starters.
Verlander was not a culprit, working six innings in his division series start against the Red Sox. He lasted at least seven innings in eight of his 11 postseason starts before that, for the Tigers from 2011 through 2014.
“This is what you work so hard in the off-season for, and throughout the season,” Verlander said, “so you’re strong mentally and physically at this time.”
The Astros were running away with the American League West when they acquired Verlander from the Tigers for three prospects on Aug. 31. It culminated a careful quest for another ace to join the left-hander Dallas Keuchel, who won the 2015 American League Cy Young Award. The Astros had resisted deals for other top starters last winter and before the nonwaiver deadline in July.
Even in August, they did not make a waiver claim on Verlander; every other American League team had passed before the Astros’ turn, and General Manager Jeff Luhnow guessed that all the National League teams would, too. When Verlander got through, the sides struck a deal with just minutes to spare for postseason eligibility.
“There were really a lot of calculated gambles along the way that worked out, and any one of them could have gone a different direction,” Luhnow said. “We could be here with no Justin Verlander. I don’t know if we would be in this same spot, though.”
For the Astros players, who were disappointed by the absence of a major move in July, the deal had overwhelming significance — symbolically for a city that had just been devastated by Hurricane Harvey, and on the field. Jose Altuve, the star second baseman, said it gave the Astros everything they needed.
“I was at home that day and my brother told me, ‘Hey, we got him!’ and I was like, ‘No, we didn’t,’ ” Altuve said. “I remember I saw my phone and MLB At Bat said, ‘Astros acquire Justin Verlander,’ and I couldn’t believe it. We had a day off the next day, and I was like: ‘I don’t want to have a day off. I want to go play. I want to see Justin with the Astros uniform.’ ”
For all of his riches (a $28 million annual salary) and celebrity (he is engaged to the supermodel Kate Upton), Verlander simply wants to fit in with his teammates, said Manager A. J. Hinch. He is a “continuous learner,” Hinch said, always seeking information to make himself better.
“We might have polar-opposite pitching tendencies, but the way our minds work are very similar,” said Keuchel, a soft-throwing left-hander. “So I’ve bounced hundreds of questions off him already, and he would probably say the same thing. It’s just been a joy to talk pitching in the dugout.”
Verlander said the contrast in styles helps both pitchers. If he is being too aggressive, Verlander said, that is something Keuchel might notice. Likewise, if Keuchel is not being aggressive enough, Verlander can remind him to adjust.
By evolving, Verlander hopes to keep pitching well into his 40s. He said this spring that his goals were to win the World Series and make the Hall of Fame. His favorite pitcher ever, Nolan Ryan, did all of those things, pitching through age 46, winning a championship and sailing into Cooperstown.
Ryan, now an executive adviser with the Astros, watched Verlander from a seat behind home plate last week.
“To see him back there and for me to be on a big-league mound in the playoffs in a Houston Astros uniform, man, it was pretty humbling and kind of a full-circle moment for me,” Verlander said.
Ryan won his title with the Mets in 1969, but could not quite lift the Astros to the World Series over nine seasons in Houston. Verlander has a chance to help do it now — and if he has his way, he would get every out on Saturday.
“It’s kind of a dying breed that the postseason starter goes nine innings, especially with the chance of coming back on short rest,” he said. “I think that’s what’s being protected. But that’s what I want to do.”