Olney: Verlander regains his fastball, his dominance and his destiny

HOUSTON -- Justin Verlander was nowhere to be seen when the American League championship trophy was presented here Saturday night. All of the Houston Astros had gathered on the temporary stage that had been hurriedly constructed on the field, and owner Jim Crane and other club officials had gathered with second baseman Jose Altuve and shortstop Carlos Correa at the front of the platform.

But when Frank Robinson, the Hall of Famer who served as presenter for Major League Baseball, began describing the other award he was about to hand out -- the Most Valuable Player for the ALCS -- the others on stage separated like curtains being drawn back. Through that opening stepped Justin Verlander, grinning, in the latest scene in the remarkable second act of his pitching life.

Not long after that, the Astros players started rushing off the field to douse each other with champagne in the clubhouse, and Verlander was one of the last, burdened by the weight of that trophy. The crowd of fans gathered behind the home dugout erupted in cheers when Verlander appeared in front of them, and he waved a hand to them, then reached up, pulled off his cap and waved that, as well.

Little more than three years ago, Verlander doubted whether anything like this was ever possible again for him, whether he had the stuff to lead a staff. He wondered whether the power that had defined him in the first decade of his career had abandoned him for good.

Verlander suffered an injury to his core while preparing for the 2014 season, and of course he tried to come back before he was fully healed, because Verlander does nothing at half speed. If his brother Ben and he are walking side by side, Justin inevitably accelerates his pace, like a race horse seeing a rival nag in his peripheral vision. Somebody must win, and it must always be Justin.

But as he pushed his way back from injury in the summer of 2014, Verlander’s mechanics frayed, the gears of his delivery grinding. His fastball velocity fell, soreness set in, and Verlander recalled moments when his fastball was clocked as low as 86 mph. In a start in Pittsburgh on Aug. 11, 2014, the Pirates hammered him for five runs in a 40-pitch inning, and when Tigers manager Brad Ausmus told the former Cy Young Award winner and Most Valuable Player that he was taking him out, the two argued. Verlander retreated, eventually, to a spot behind the visitors clubhouse, right near an elevator that’s used for freight.

“I just lost it,” Verlander recalled. He bawled for the loss of his fastball, for the loss of the dominance that he had diligently worked to maintain.

Verlander finished the season with a 4.54 ERA, and he endeavored to learn more about his body, about how it functioned, how the muscles and tendons and ligaments complemented each other. In the spring of 2015, Verlander pitched in a spring training exhibition and threw a fastball that felt especially crisp, his arm flowing easily, powerfully through his delivery.

Verlander remembers turning and looking at the scoreboard to see the velocity reading, and as he related that moment, sitting in the visitors clubhouse at Yankee Stadium on Monday, he held out his right arm and said, “I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about it.”

The number that flashed on the scoreboard: 95.

Ninety-five miles per hour. With that, Verlander recalls, he knew that he still had the ability to throw hard, to be a power pitcher.

There would be more adjustments for Verlander. Ausmus met with him midway through the summer of 2015 and told him that he could no longer bully hitters with his fastball, and that he needed to consider and use scouting reports, a change that Verlander embraced immediately. He finished second in the AL Cy Young race in 2016, but the Tigers began to collapse and Detroit began to consider offers for him.

In the first minutes after Verlander was traded to the Astros on the night of Aug. 31, Houston manager A.J. Hinch spoke briefly over the phone with the pitcher and told him that the Astros wanted Verlander to be himself. But the Astros also had some thoughts about his changeup and other pieces of what he did, about pitch sequencing. Verlander welcomed the suggestions, and tried and refined a new grip for that off-speed pitch, using it to strike out left-handed hitters in the New York Yankees' lineup in the ALCS.

He dominated the Yankees in Game 2, striking out 13 in a 124-pitch complete game, and by the sixth inning of Game 6, with the Astros on the edge of elimination, he seemed to pay the price for the extended outing earlier in the series. He was tired, the weariness robbing him of some of his command, and the Yankees stressed him with some extended at-bats. But he shook off a sign before a 3-0 pitch to New York slugger Gary Sanchez, preferring to throw a slider rather than the fastball for which catcher Brian McCann called. Sanchez -- surprised by the breaking ball -- checked his swing and rolled a ground ball out to shortstop. “The biggest pitch of the game,” McCann said.

There was one more fright for Verlander in the seventh inning of Game 6, when Todd Frazier clubbed a ball to the deepest part of Minute Maid Park with two runners on base. Verlander thought it was a homer, and so did Hinch, Yankees manager Joe Girardi and Frazier. But with Minute Maid Park’s roof closed and the air seemingly thickened by the heat of the sellout crowd, long fly balls died in this series -- and George Springer caught Frazier’s drive against the fence. A surprised Verlander threw his arms into the air jubilantly at the turning point in the Astros’ series comeback against the Yankees.

Verlander’s baseball hero has always been Nolan Ryan because he appreciated the way Ryan was able to continue as a power pitcher into his late 30s and early 40s, something that Verlander may do; he was the only pitcher among the top 14 in average fastball velocity this year over 30 years old. Ryan is affiliated with the Astros now, and attends a lot of games. After Game 7 on Saturday evening, Ryan and his wife, Ruth, happily stood on the mound with Hinch.

But since Verlander was acquired by the Astros, he still hasn’t had a chance to really sit and talk with Ryan, to share notes and discuss pitching. That conversation seems inevitable, maybe even sometime during the World Series. And because of Verlander’s career revival, the two men can look forward to days of conversation years from now on the back porch at the Otesaga Hotel in Cooperstown, where the Hall of Famers stay.

• About four hours before Game 6 of the ALCS on Friday, Altuve leaned back in the chair in front of his locker in the Astros’ clubhouse, and with a smile, he described how his daughter Melanie took her first steps. She is about to celebrate her first birthday, and while she attends Astros games (including Friday's) Altuve said he doesn’t think she understands yet that one of the men running around on the field in front of her is her dad.

He laughed, and then changed the subject to something more pressing. “What do you have on tonight’s game?” Altuve asked, and before I could answer, he offered his own theory -- that the AL champions will have an advantage over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.

It’s very possible that Altuve strongly believes this, and it may also be possible that this was a classic example of an elite athlete deploying some sort of ninja mind trick to create a reasonable path to success for himself. But regardless of whether Altuve’s premise is built on nature or nurture, he talked about how the winner of the ALCS will ride a wave of momentum right into the series against the Dodgers. If it’s the Yankees, Altuve mentioned, they would have survived three very difficult challenges already -- the wild-card game, a winner-take-all game against the Indians and a tough series against the Astros. If it’s Houston that moves on, Altuve posited, it will have been strongly tested by the Yankees, with the Astros overcoming a 3-2 deficit to win Games 6 and 7. Of course, this is where we are today.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers have been inactive since finishing off the Cubs, and they have had a near-seamless October experience, crushing the Diamondbacks before they knocked off the defending champions. They’ve won seven of the eight games they’ve played in the postseason, while the Astros have played 11 playoff games.

The Dodgers were rewarded for their summer of excellence and their No. 1 seed. The Diamondbacks went into the Division Series against the Dodgers with their pitching in chaos, after they had to use Robbie Ray in relief to survive the wild-card game, and Arizona never recovered. Similarly, the Cubs’ staff was jumbled and taxed after the crazy five-game series against Washington, and was an easy mark for the Dodgers.

This will not be the case in the World Series, however. Before Game 7, Hinch said his dream scenario was to win that night without having to use Dallas Keuchel -- or, in a total emergency, Verlander. Keuchel was prepared to pitch in Game 7 if needed.

But he wasn’t, and now Keuchel will start Game 1 fully rested; Verlander will start Game 2 fully rested, and Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers Jr. and the Astros' relievers will be fully rested. The Dodgers will go into the series as heavy favorites, in all likelihood, but the Astros are wholly energized, as Altuve predicted.

• The strange firing of Dusty Baker after the Nationals had won 192 games in his two seasons at the helm underscored the reality that there are very, very few symbiotic situations for managers around Major League Baseball. “Terry Francona has it better than anybody,” said one rival evaluator the other day, referencing the strong communication base within the Indians’ structure. “He works for people who respect and care about him, and vice versa, and that’s really rare.”

Yes, in some organizations, the team president tends to be very political. In other organizations, the owner interferes in ways that are counterproductive. For some teams, the working relationship between the manager and front office isn’t great. In Baker’s case, the disconnect was seemingly with an ownership that didn’t value the manager in the same way that the players have.

As the Nationals look for their next manager, they need someone who has experience with veteran players (someone like Baker, by the way); someone who will work under the expectation of a world championship; and someone willing to work on the cheap, given the Nationals’ long history of paying their managers below market. Good luck with that.

Baseball Tonight Podcast

A special Call to the Legend: Yankees play-by-play man John Sterling talks about his career path and the genesis of his distinct home run calls, and he presents and grades the home run calls drawn up by pod listeners.

Friday: Bob Nightengale of USA Today discusses Enrique Hernandez’s big night, the Dodgers’ excellence and the forthcoming Cubs shakeup (which began Saturday with the firing of longtime pitching coach Chris Bosio); the Fireball Express talks about the postseason.

Thursday: Jon Sciambi and Jessica Mendoza discuss the Yankees' roll and the Cubs' survival. Plus, Astros players react to Yankee Stadium, Jesse Rogers talks about the future for the Cubs.

Wednesday: Tim Kurkjian talks about the Cubs' bullpen woes, and how youth is saving the Yankees; "Inside Heat" on the NLCS from Cubs broadcaster Len Kasper, and on the ALCS from Jake Kaplan of The Houston Chronicle.

Tuesday: Keith Law talks about Joe Girardi's odd bullpen strategy and Yu Darvish's resurgence, Dodgers play-by-play man Joe Davis with some "Inside Heat" on L.A's run and his first year succeeding Vin Scully, and Marly Rivera weighs in on Alex Cora's managerial candidacy and Altuve's perfectionism.

Monday: Astros analyst Steve Sparks weighs in on the Astros' early dominance over the Yankees, and Todd Radom stops by for the latest uniform/logo trivia.

And today will be better than yesterday.