The Astros ace couldn’t erase his legacy of Fall Classic failures in Game 1 vs. the Phillies.
HOUSTON — All week, Justin Verlander insisted that he cared more about winning Game 1 of the World Series than he did about erasing his legacy of failures in those moments. On Friday, he did neither.
The Astros, perhaps the most menacing baseball team in the modern era, who had begun openly discussing whether they could tear through an undefeated postseason, handed their ace a five-run lead in the third inning. Two frames later, Verlander had given it all back. By the time the night was over, the Phillies had won 6–5 in 10 innings.
Verlander, 39, will likely win his third American League Cy Young award next month. He can add that to his 2006 AL Rookie of the Year award and his ’11 AL Most Valuable Player award, as long as he leaves room for the Hall of Fame plaque that will surely follow. He has twirled gems on nearly every stage—except this one.
Manager Dusty Baker said he was surprised by Verlander’s struggles on Friday. Maybe he shouldn’t have been. The latest flop gave Verlander a 6.07 ERA in eight World Series starts (two in 2006 and one in ’12 with the Tigers, two each in ’17 and ’19 with the Astros, and this one), the worst mark in history by a pitcher with at least 30 innings in the World Series. In three Game 1 outings, his ERA is 10.29.
I wanted to ask him why this keeps happening, but he said he would not answer questions beyond the five we were allowed at his postgame press conference.
So he has not spoken of his World Series legacy. (Clayton Kershaw, who has pitched better in the World Series than Verlander but has answered these questions before and after just about every October start of his career, is presumably shaking his head.) Of this outing in particular, Verlander said at the press conference, “I need to do better. No excuses.”
No explanation, either. Asked what changed after the third inning, he said, “Good question. Maybe just I wasn't executing pitches as well.”
Something else changed, too. Through three perfect innings, he threw his four-seamer 67% of the time. But beginning in the fourth, after Kyle Schwarber and Rhys Hoskins put good swings on fastballs, Verlander began leaning more heavily on his breaking stuff, with disastrous results: The next three hits and a walk all came on breaking balls. He went back to the fastball in the fifth, but by then the Phillies were on that, too.
The pitch selection was just one of many perplexing decisions the Astros made on Friday. Although his relievers had not pitched in five days and will have another day off after Game 2, Baker allowed Verlander to give up the entire lead before finally summoning Bryan Abreu to start the sixth. Abreu did not even begin warming up until the tying run was on first base.
“It's hard to take Justin out because he can struggle for a while, but he usually gets it back together,” Baker said. “You don't want to just go through your whole bullpen that early in the game.”
Even then, the game was only tied. The Astros’ next best chance came in the sixth inning, when first baseman Yuli Gurriel singled with one out. DH Trey Mancini, who is 0-for-the-postseason, hit for himself and flied out to foul territory beyond right field. When Mancini’s spot came up in the order in the 10th, Baker used Aledmys Díaz—a better option than Mancini at that point, just as he would have been four innings earlier. (And as the DH, he could have remained in the game.)
Twenty-five-year-old rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña, who spent the whole season inspiring teammates and coaches to call him an old soul, finally looked his age on Friday. He booted a ball in the seventh and then, seemingly out of frustration, underhanded a no-look pass behind him to third baseman Alex Bregman, who also was not looking and barely kept the ball from skipping into left field. In the ninth, Peña casually one-handed a popup and nearly dropped it.
In the bottom of the 10th, with two outs and a man on second, Phillies reliever David Robertson seemed to lose the strike zone. He walked Gurriel on five pitches, then threw three straight balls to Díaz, one of which skipped past catcher J.T. Realmuto and allowed the runners to move up. But the dugout gave Díaz the green light on 3–0 and he swung at ball four below his knees. “I was looking for something up in the zone, but he made a good pitch,” he said. He swung again at the next pitch, in the same spot, and grounded to third to end the game.
None of it made sense. But none of it would have mattered if the ace had pitched like an ace.
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