HOUSTON -- Justin Verlander joined the Houston Astros in late August with a mandate to pitch high-profile games -- and keep an open mind. Top-of-the-rotation starters have to be ready for the pressure of both clinchers and elimination games, and they never know what the October agenda will bring from one appearance to the next.
During a span of three days in the Bronx this week, the Astros' team mood took a sudden shift from exhilaration to the opposite end of the spectrum. And Verlander, who could have been entrusted with closing out the series, will now be in the role of trying to extend it.
All the Astros needed was one measly win in New York to close in on a pennant, but three days of uninspired play by Houston changed the course of the series. The Yankees shut down the Astros' powerful offense and outscored them 19-5 to turn a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 American League Championship Series lead.
Now the Astros will turn to Verlander, with his facial scruff and endless reservoir of 95 mph fastballs, against Luis Severino in Game 6 Friday night at Minute Maid Park. Verlander's presence is enough to make his Houston teammates feel better about their .147 team batting average in the series, their questionable bullpen and sorry performance on the road against the Yankees.
"There's an immediate belief when you have a Justin Verlander going," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said Thursday. "It starts the day. When we wake up tomorrow morning, we'll know we have an incredible opportunity to win. Justin Verlander is on the mound. It doesn't matter. Game 1, Game 6, a game on a Tuesday in July, August or September. So that's a good feeling.
"He raises the bar. Guys are going to want to do extra. We're going to have to fight that emotion. But his presence will immediately make everybody sit up straight, stand up a little bit more, have a little bit more energy because of the presence that he brings. It's hard to measure. It's hard to fake. You either have it or you don't. Verlander has it."
Verlander's sterling résumé helps explain why the Houston players and fans were so euphoric when Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow pried him loose from Detroit on Aug. 31. For the cost of three prospects -- and a healthy chunk of the $56 million still owed Verlander over the next two seasons -- the Astros got themselves a bona fide game-changer.
On the mound, Verlander has more than lived up to expectations. He went 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA and a 0.65 WHIP down the stretch, and he has continued to perform to his high standards against Boston and New York in the postseason. In Game 2 of the ALCS, Verlander threw a 124-pitch complete game to beat the Yankees 2-1.
The New York hitters were especially vulnerable when behind in the count. Verlander went to an 0-2 count 13 times in the game and retired all 13 hitters -- seven by strikeout.
"He has good velo, and he spots up his fastball well and has good fastball command," Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge said. "And then he mixes in his off-speed pitches. It's difficult. We're just going to go out there and keep our game plan and try to get on him early and hit the mistakes. When he's on, he's on. He's tough to hit."
Verlander's career postseason résumé says he's on his game as a rule. He's seventh in MLB history with 128 postseason strikeouts, and his seven double-digit strikeout games are a postseason record.
One of the most impressive things about Verlander is his ability to maintain his velocity so late in games at age 34, with all that mileage on his right arm. Rather than back off his routine or pick his spots after a long, tiring season, he continues to push himself in the four days between starts.
"I kind of step on the gas,'' Verlander said. "I feel as good now as I've felt all year. I just stick to my routine. This is what we work so hard for. My workout regimen in the offseason, my throwing regimen, my shoulder regimen in-season -- all that stuff. This is when it pays off the most."
Game 6 could hinge in part on how the Yankees adjust to Verlander while facing him for the second time in five days, and how deftly he's able to respond. Before Game 5 on Wednesday, Dallas Keuchel was universally proclaimed as Houston's designated Yankee crusher. The Yankees finally put that narrative to rest with four runs in 4⅔ innings off Keuchel in a 5-0 victory.
If Verlander went to school on Keuchel and learned anything in particular from the Yankees' approach to the Houston lefty, he's keeping his insights to himself.
"If you're going at the same team twice in a row, you don't want them to see the exact same guy or same game plan," Verlander said. "So there will probably be some adjustments on my end. But I also have to trust my instincts and what my eyes tell me more than anything."
Verlander's heart and mind tell him he's the right man for the job, and the numbers bear out his conviction. In four career postseason starts in elimination games, he's 3-1 with a 1.49 ERA.
He'll take the mound with Houston's season on the line Friday because the Astros targeted him as their big stretch-drive acquisition. But Verlander's fondness for the big stage played an equally important role in persuading him to approve the late August trade to Houston.
During Thursday's interview session, Verlander recalled how the Tigers made the playoffs during his rookie year in 2006. He assumed it would be an annual tradition until veteran Sean Casey arrived from Pittsburgh in a midsummer trade and revealed that he had never been to the playoffs over 10 big league seasons.
"That really surprised me," Verlander said. "I always remember him saying that, and I try to keep that fresh in my head to know this is something special. Not every major league baseball player gets to experience the playoffs or go on a deep run.
"So, yes, to answer the question, this is why I'm here."