Justin Verlander, whose 225 wins lead all active pitchers, plans to rejoin the Houston Astros’ … [+] rotation for the final week of the season. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
It wasn’t the cheating scandal that brought down the Houston Astros. It was the loss of Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, the top two pitchers in the American League last year.
Cole jumped to the Yankees for a free-agent windfall of $324, spread over nine years, while Verlander fell victim to a forearm strain that has kept him out of action since the first game of the virus-shortened 2020 campaign.
With less than two weeks left in the schedule, the Astros are in free-fall and virtually certain to end their string of three straight AL West titles. In fact, with a 2-9 mark in their last 11 games entering play Tuesday, they are barely holding onto postseason hopes – even though each league will send eight teams to the playoffs next month.
But hope is on the horizon in Houston: Verlander is on the verge of a return that couldn’t be more timely. The 6’5″ righthander, who won 21 games and the American League Cy Young Award last season, threw nearly 60 pitches Saturday and is scheduled to face live hitters next.
That puts him on target to start a game during the last week of the season and, if all goes well, pitch for the team in the playoffs.
As Astros manager Dusty Baker told Brian McTaggart of MLB.com, getting Verlander back is “a very, very positive sign.”
It’s certainly a better sign than the one held by a ridiculing fan during a 2020 exhibition game that said, “Bet you can’t steal THIS sign!”
Talk of the team’s apparent involvement in stealing signs by electronic means subsided when the pandemic pushed the start of the baseball season back to Independence Day weekend but the season has been a struggle for the Astros anyway.
Ryan Pressly of the Houston Astros fist bumps manager Dusty Baker after defeating the Texas Rangers … [+] 2-1 at Minute Maid Park on September 02, 2020 in Houston. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Baker, a long-time manager now in his first season at the Houston helm, has had to deploy such inexperienced starters as Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy behind veterans Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr. And that was before McCullers, who won three of his eight starts, was sidelined by neck problems early this month.
Not surprisingly, the Astros slipped below the break-even mark (23-24 on Tuesday morning). That left them six-and-a-half games behind the Oakland Athletics with 13 left to play. Right behind them are the surprising Seattle Mariners, who trail the Astros by a game-and-a-half.
For the final stretch, however, both Verlander and McCullers Jr. should be back, though it’s unknown how deep into games either can go after their respective layoffs.
Last year, Verlander yielded 5.529 hits per nine innings, best in the American League, and fanned 300 hitters in 223 innings. The five-time strikeout king led the AL in starts and innings pitched, finishing with a 2.58 earned run average, second only to Cole.
The 37-year-old pitcher is the active leader in wins, with 225.
Baker believes the return of Verlander is equivalent to acquiring a top-level starter – a major accomplishment for a team with playoff hopes weeks after the passage of the trading deadline.
If Verlander pitches well in the playoffs, he would be worth his weight in gold to the Astros. The pro-rated version of his salary is $12,222,222, according to Spotrac, and he won’t be eligible for free agency before the 2022 campaign.
After winning the AL West title three years in a row, the Astros can still qualify for postseason play as a second-place team or wild-card. The 2017 World Champions, won the pennant again last year but lost the Fall Classic to the Washington Nationals despite a team-record 107 wins during the regular season.