Houston Astros won't start Justin Verlander in season opener

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Still sporting a 0.00 ERA after three spring training starts, Astros ace Justin Verlander won't start on Opening Day as Houston plans around the early schedule.

Manager Dusty Baker said skipping Verlander in the opener on April 7 at the Los Angeles Angels better positions him to take advantage of the Astros' three off-days in the first two weeks.

"We've got to be a little bit apprehensive in general in the beginning," Baker said Tuesday.

Returning from Tommy John surgery, the 39-year-old Verlander hasn't pitched in a major league game since the delayed Opening Day of the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season. The two-time Cy Young Award winner threw six innings that July day before being shut down for the year.

Prior to 2021, Verlander had been Houston's Opening Day starter every season since his arrival via trade during the 2017 season.

"Could I have tried to build up for Opening Day? Yes," Verlander said. "But after talking to the doctors, the coaches, everybody involved, it just didn't make lot of sense to put myself through that stress for just one start."

Verlander threw four scoreless innings against Washington on Tuesday, allowing two hits. He struck out six and walked one.

Overall this spring, the right-hander hasn't permitted a run in 8 2/3 innings and given up just five hits. He's fanned 10 and walked three.

Verlander started Houston's first Grapefruit League contest this spring, then made his second start five days later. This time around, Houston flipped Verlander and Framber Valdez in the rotation.

"It would be nice and fun to be out there Opening Day and kind of be back out there in that atmosphere," Verlander said. "But it's also, with all the perspective that I have over the last couple of years, I'm going to really enjoy this Opening Day -- not having to pitch and really watching the festivities."

Valdez, 28, made his first Grapefruit League appearance on Monday, and only a hit batter blemished three perfect innings. Should Valdez get the ball on April 7, it will be his first Opening Day start.

The right-hander owns a career 24-17 record with a 3.74 ERA across four major league seasons.

"It's nothing to do with anything other than we are trying to choose between he and Framber -- which one is probably the strongest, can handle the second and third start after that," Baker said.

Facing the Nationals, Verlander srtuck out the first four batters. The lone hit he allowed came on a flyball by Nelson Cruz that landed in front of Kyle Tucker and inches inside the right field line. It was the first hit for Cruz in 19 at-bats since signing with Washington.

Verlander threw 45 of his 62 pitches for strikes.

A hand placement alteration early in his delivery allowed Verlander to recapture some of the sharpness he lacked in previous spring outings.

"I think I kind of found a little something mechanically that has cleaned up a lot of stuff -- one of those easy fixes," Verlander said.

Verlander is expected to make one more spring start before the Astros break camp.

Houston right-hander Jose Urquidy is scheduled to make his first Grapefruit League start on Wednesday at the New York Mets.