ARLINGTON — Of the first 37 batters that came to the plate Thursday afternoon at Globe Life Field, only one reached base. That’s because Astros starter Justin Verlander and Rangers starter Martín Pérez were locked in the kind of scintillating pitchers’ duel you don’t see much these days.
Pérez retired the first 18 batters he faced, taking a perfect game into the seventh inning before a Chas McCormick leadoff double, and Verlander pretty much matched him by giving up one single through seven dominant innings. Baserunners were at a premium and something had to give.
“Throughout the game, I was stretching and trying to make sure I’m prepared if I ever have to go in the game,” said Tucker, who was out of the lineup Thursday for the first time this season. “I’d go in the batting cage and hit and get warmed up, just in case the opportunity arises and you’re good to go.”
The homer — the second in three games for Tucker — snapped a 1-1 tie and made a winner out of Verlander, who gave up one run on four hits and struck out eight batters in seven innings for career win No. 228. No active pitcher has won more games.
“You always root for runs and all of a sudden you realize, three, four, five innings in, he’s got it,” Verlander said of Pérez. “Kind of knew we would be in the middle of a pitching duel there. As it goes so many times, like in the middle of a pitching duel, he gives up one and I come back and give up one. He pitched great. It was fun to come out on the right side, though.”
The 39-year-old Verlander (2-1) continues to defy Father Time. In four starts after missing the 2021 season following Tommy John surgery, he has a 1.73 ERA, 0.69 WHIP, 28 strikeouts and four walks in 26 innings. He looks every bit as dominant as the pitcher who won the Cy Young Award in his last full season in ‘19.
“He was dealing,” manager Dusty Baker said. “Man, he was being matched by their pitcher, too. He was dealing, both of them. That was a classic pitchers’ duel. If you took a pitch, it was a strike. If you swung at it, it wasn’t a good pitch to hit. Boy, luckily [McCormick] got us going late.”
The only thing missing is Verlander’s ability to finish games, but that may be coming. He threw a season-high 91 pitches on Thursday, including a nine-pitch first inning. He threw 42 fastballs — averaging 95.3 mph — and 28 sliders but said his best pitch was his curveball, which he threw 20 times. He used the curve to strike out Kole Calhoun in the third, Mitch Garver in the fourth and Adolis García and Willie Calhoun in the fifth.
“I think we’ve done a good job communicating and allowing myself, especially with the short Spring Training, to build my pitch count up slowly, allow myself time to recover between starts,” Verlander said. “I would like to be able to build up to 105, 110 [pitches] like I expect to be able to throw. We’re being cautious about it and not trying to overdo it, and with 91 pitches, it didn’t make sense to go back out in case I got in a little bit of a jam.”
Still, there was no score entering the seventh, when McCormick broke up Pérez’s perfect-game bid with a double and scored on a Yordan Alvarez single. Verlander retired 19 of the first 20 batters he faced before giving up three consecutive singles in the seventh, leading to a run on a sac fly.
In the eighth, Verlander was one of the first Astros players to greet Tucker when he returned to the dugout following his clutch homer trot.
“It was one of those moments in the game [when] you know it’s a huge spot,” Verlander said. “Tuck has turned into one of the best hitters in the game and to come off the bench like that and put that swing on the ball, it’s nice to see him — after an unlucky first few weeks — start to find things going his way. That was the difference in the ballgame. I was elated.”