PHILADELPHIA – It was closing in on 1 a.m. and the Houston Astros’ biggest win this year was nearly an hour old, but Dusty Baker still had one more delivery to make.
As he made his way through the clubhouse after the Astros’ heart-stopping 3-2 victory in Game 5 of the World Series, putting them one win away from a championship, Baker found an Astros staffer and handed over the night’s lineup card.
‘Be sure to get this to Justin,’ Baker said.
The recipient was Justin Verlander, who will turn 40 in February yet in the soggy early hours of Friday morning was feted more like a rookie.
Teammates shoved him into a laundry cart and showered him with beer. He happily paraded about soaked with suds, impervious to all abuse. And Baker carefully curated the memento with the words so important to Houston’s success – Verlander P – that the starting pitcher would cherish forever.
Follow every game: Live MLB Scores
At 39, on his ninth attempt, Verlander won his first World Series game, a tribute to his ability to shrug off a haymaker and settle in, to empty his arsenal when he knew his time in the game was running short and above all, to rely on an Astros team packed with greatness from corner to corner.
It’s how a bullpen loaded with power arms picked him up for the final four innings after he handed over the ball after five. It’s how he followed the path laid down by catcher Martin Maldonado, pitch calling, but challenging him in the most important spot of the game.
NAILBITER: Astros survive in Game 5, take control of World Series in 3-2 win
GAME 5: Astros veteran, rookie have Houston on brink of World Series
And in the end, after closer Ryan Pressly recorded the game’s final five outs, including a stupefying, wall-climbing catch from center fielder Chas McCormick, Verlander and the Astros again are on the precipice of a title for the first time since 2017, when his August arrival heralded an era where the results have matched the great expectations that accompanied him.
‘I mean, it just is so symbolic for me that my first win in the World Series is just such a great team win,’ says Verlander, the two-time Cy Young winner with 244 regular season wins, a desire to pitch until he’s 45 and a reservation in Cooperstown five years after he decides to stop.
‘There’s so many people that go into all these wins in my career, countless individuals that I’ve played with that have made great plays in certain situations that get overlooked. To have it happen on the biggest stage tonight was pretty special.’
Yet the win wouldn’t be possible without his own feel for himself, and the moment.
After the Phillies cooked him in Game 1 of this World Series, recovering from a hitless first three innings to rock him for five runs in an eventual 10-inning win, Verlander went back to the lab. He pondered how to tweak his mechanics to make his slider and curveball play better against the punishing Phillies.
And then on the game’s second pitch, Kyle Schwarber torched Verlander’s fastball for a home run.
‘It just sucks because of the moment and obviously all the questions and weight,’ says Verlander. ‘But you have to rely on the hundreds of starts and the thousands of pitches I’ve thrown before and just kind of say, OK, like, I’ve given up leadoff home runs before. Let me bear down. It’s not going to be indicative of what’s going to happen the rest of the game, by any means.
‘Let’s see what happens.’
What happened was the Phillies would not get another run off Verlander, and none at all until the eighth inning.
Getting there required clearing two massive hurdles.
The first was Verlander’s own creation, when he loaded the bases on a pair of two-out walks and a single for No. 2 hitter Rhys Hoskins. A mound consultation with Maldonado followed and Hoskins swung through a slider to leave the bases loaded.
Verlander settled in until Bryce Harper’s two-out double in the fifth. At 84 pitches, it was obvious Nick Castellanos would be his final batter.
A 10-pitch battle ensued. Castellanos fouled off five balls. The crowd of 45,693 roared a little louder with every one. Finally, Castellanos capitulated, sending a gentle fly ball to left to end it.
‘Physically,’ says Verlander, ‘I was fine. Just really wanted an out.’
Verlander, not one to roar with emotion, pounded his fist in his glove. The slider claimed another victim in a massive spot, the payoff from his Game 1 adjustments evident.
‘The five days in between (after Game 1), the work that he puts in, it’s the reason why he’s going to be a Hall of Famer,’ says Pressly.
While the Game 5 stakes were massive enough that personal milestones took a backseat, perspective settled in a bit before the Astros got ready to skip town.
‘Someone to look up to with his work ethic. Somebody to get behind,’ says third baseman Alex Bregman. ‘He’s going to attack. You know he’s so prepared every single time he takes the mound.
‘It’s been an honor to be able to play defense behind a Hall of Famer like that.’
They can all win another ring with one more victory, the ultimate team accomplishment. Along the way, Verlander picked up a little something for himself.
‘I can say I got one,’ he says. ‘My boys, my teammates, my family, they gave me the rookie treatment after the game. They put me in the cart and rolled me in the shower and just doused me with all sorts of stuff, and it was one of the best feelings in my career. Just truly love these guys. I love our team.
‘They rallied around me and they were almost just as happy that I got the win as I was. Just an incredible feeling.’