Verlander's gem, Altuve's sprint home give Astros commanding 2-0 ALCS lead

Verlander on performance: 'Best I have felt all year' (1:49)

Justin Verlander explains why his pitching was so dominant against the Yankees in Game 2 of the ALCS and what his reaction was to Carlos Correa's walk-off RBI double. (1:49)

HOUSTON -- On the eve of his 18th career playoff start, Justin Verlander contemplated how he might have fared if he had played in a bygone era when pitchers were allowed to throw 300 innings in a season and finish the games they started.

"I do often wonder how I would've been back then," Verlander said Friday. "I think it would be a pretty cool time to play baseball."

And then, on Saturday, the Houston Astros ace turned back the clock.

With the sellout crowd at Minute Maid Park chanting his three-syllable last name and his supermodel fiancée Kate Upton watching from a luxury suite, Verlander turned in a Game 2 gem in the American League Championship Series that would have made Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson blush. He struck out 13 New York Yankees hitters. He completed nine innings. He threw 124 pitches.

Quite simply, he dominated.

Verlander's teammates noticed. How could they not? In a postseason when elite starting pitchers are getting knocked out of games in the middle innings, performances like this have become as rare as a solar eclipse. So, with the score tied in the ninth inning, after Verlander got slugger Aaron Judge to fly out on a 97 mph fastball, Astros shortstop Carlos Correa turned to second baseman Jose Altuve and said, "Hey, we've got to make this happen."

"When a guy like Verlander goes out there and throws nine innings and 124 pitches, you don't want to play extra innings," Correa said later. "You want to win that game for him."

Few players have more power to do that than Altuve and Correa, the best hitters on the majors' best hitting team. Sure enough, in the bottom of the ninth, Altuve lined a one-out single to left field and Correa followed with a double to the gap in right-center. Never mind that Judge cut the ball off and made a good throw to strong-armed shortstop Didi Gregorius. Astros third-base coach Gary Pettis, known for his aggressiveness, waved Altuve home the entire way.

Gregorius' relay throw easily beat Altuve to the plate -- "If you look at the [replay], when the ball is crossing home plate, he's still not in the picture," Correa said -- but catcher Gary Sanchez was unable to glove the short hop. Altuve slid home safely to give the Astros a 2-1 victory and a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

"Big moments are meant for big-time performers," Houston manager A.J. Hinch said. "From Pitch 1, Justin Verlander was big for this team. He just was every bit the top-end pitcher in the league that he's been for a really long time. He put us on his back today with his pitching."

Name the last ace who did what Verlander did Saturday. Corey Kluber? Nope. Clayton Kershaw? Try again. Madison Bumgarner? Not even him.

Verlander became the first pitcher to throw a complete game with at least 13 strikeouts in a playoff start since Tim Lincecum in 2010, and the first to do it against the Yankees since Gibson in the 1964 World Series. The only pitchers with more strikeouts in a postseason game against the Yankees: Koufax (15) and Carl Erskine (14), both in the World Series in 1963 and 1953, respectively.

But here's the thing: In going retro to beat the Baby Bombers, Verlander didn't do anything new. At least, not for him. It marked the seventh time in his career that he threw at least 120 pitches in a playoff start. The last pitcher to throw more than 124 pitches in a postseason game against the Yankees: Verlander (who else?), who tossed 132 pitches in Game 3 of the 2012 ALCS.

"Dude is unbelievable," Astros right fielder George Springer said. "He comes out and just bulldogs. There wasn't any time when I thought he was going to come out of that game. It was awesome seeing him come out for the ninth. If we hadn't scored there, I wouldn't have been surprised to see him come out for the 10th. That's just him."

Hinch certainly wasn't about to lift Verlander. Not after seeing the 34-year-old strike out the side on 12 pitches in the eighth inning. Not even with the heart of the Yankees' order -- Judge, Gregorius and Sanchez -- coming to the plate in the ninth.

Over the years, Verlander has been known for pacing himself through starts to be able to maintain his velocity late in a game. This wasn't any different. His 99th pitch was a 96 mph fastball to Todd Frazier, his 109th an elevated 97 mph fastball that Brett Gardner swung through to end the eighth inning. Seven of his 16 pitches in the ninth inning were clocked at 96 mph or harder.

"It shows you how special he really can be," Astros right fielder Josh Reddick said. "I don't think many guys send their starter out in the ninth inning with 100-plus pitches. That, in itself, is pretty magnificent as well. But he's one of those guys who leaves a little bit in the tank when he needs to. He's got a little bit of a reserve tank. When he needs to dig deep, he goes in there and pulls out some pretty magical stuff."

With the exception of a two-batter hiccup in the fifth inning when he gave up back-to-back doubles to Aaron Hicks and Frazier, Verlander was in complete command. He took 13 batters to an 0-2 count, the most in any game in his career, and retired all of them, seven by strikeout. He threw more strikes (93) than most starters throw pitches, and he leaned on his slider 31.5 percent of the time, the highest percentage in any game in his career. Nine of his strikeouts came on the slider.

And once Altuve and Correa made certain he had won, Verlander was able to sit back, take stock and put this game into context in a brilliant 13-year career that has featured Rookie of the Year and Cy Young awards, an AL MVP crown and 10 postseason victories, but no World Series rings.

"It's definitely up there, if not the top," he said. "With everything that is going on, not just on the personal level but for the team, being in the championship series and being in a 1-1 game the whole way and being able to go nine and, man, just everything. It's definitely one of the most satisfying starts I've had in my career."

You get the feeling there might be more moments like this for Verlander before October is out. Five days ago, Monday at Fenway Park, he pitched in relief for the first time in his career and helped the Astros close out the Boston Red Sox in their division series.

Does anyone doubt Hinch would ask him to do that again? After all, there's nobody the Astros trust more to close out a game, even the ones he starts.

"You talk about the postseason and you're talking about Justin Verlander," Correa said. "MVP, Cy Young, he's been tested before. He's a horse. He goes out there and he's going to shut people down."

And he does it in a way that works in any era.