Astros' Justin Verlander trying not to focus on free agency

HOUSTON -- Justin Verlander ventured into the free agent market for the first time last offseason and could do so again in a matter of weeks. His contract comes with a $25 million player option for 2023, granted by virtue of him reaching, and easily surpassing, the 130-inning threshold this season.

But in all likelihood he'll decline it in search of greater compensation, setting up the possibility of Friday's World Series opener being his last home start as a member of the Houston Astros.

"I'm just kind of along for the ride right now," said Verlander, who will oppose Philadelphia Phillies right-hander Aaron Nola in Game 1. "It's been a wonderful year for me, my family at home and in the sport. I'm just trying to be present and part of it. I'm not really trying to focus too much on what's ahead."

Verlander, 39, vaulted himself into contention for the American League Cy Young Award in his return from Tommy John surgery, winning 18 games while leading the majors in ERA (1.75) and WHIP (0.83). Verlander was the eighth-highest-paid pitcher this season and could command an annual salary in the $40 million range on the open market, given Max Scherzer's three-year, $130 million deal with the New York Mets last offseason.

Of course, the Astros could step up and offer that themselves, keeping him in the city where he has starred since coming over in a midseason trade in 2017.

Verlander called last year's brief free agent experience "stressful" but also "interesting."

"I enjoyed the process," he said. "I'm intrigued moving forward."

His focus, however, is on the Phillies, the team he pitched five no-hit innings against in his final regular-season start on Oct. 4. Verlander went on to struggle against the Seattle Mariners in the opener of the American League Division Series, allowing six runs on 10 hits in four innings, but he pitched six innings of one-run ball against the New York Yankees in Game 1 of the AL Championship Series.

Now he's in search of his first career World Series win.

Verlander is 0-6 with a 5.68 ERA in seven career World Series starts, making this the only stage he has yet to really conquer.

"It's not my goal, though," Verlander said of being the winning pitcher of record in the World Series. "My goal's not to go out there and win a baseball game. There's been games in the World Series that I don't deserve a win. There's been games that I thought I pitched well enough where we could get a win and it just didn't work out. At this point in the season, personal goals like that just don't matter. Try to win the game however you can. I was one of the happiest people in the world Game 1 against Seattle when we won that game. I pitched like crap, but we won. It doesn't matter anymore. It would be nice, though."