December 5, 2022

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Same as he ever was: Verlander hurls gem

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SEATTLE — There was no way Justin Verlander was going to come back from Tommy John surgery and be average. There was no chance he was going to grind, sweat and push through the doubts and pain to return to the mound and be a shell of his former self.

Verlander is built differently, and even at 39 years old and possessing a Hall of Fame resume, he still has something to prove. If there were any cynics who believed he wasn’t going to be able to return to his peak form, just check with the Seattle Mariners.

“That’s about as dominant of a performance as you’re going to see, and for a guy who’s been doing it in this league for a long, long time,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said.

Indeed. In his second start after missing last season, Verlander flashed vintage dominance for the Astros by throwing eight scoreless innings, while striking out eight batters and allowing three hits, in a 4-0 win over the Mariners at T-Mobile Field.

“I wouldn’t have put in all the hard work if I didn’t think I could still pitch at a high level,” Verlander said. “But that being said, it is definitely gratifying to have that feeling again of going out there after a tough loss [Friday] and being able to pick us up and go deep in the game and do what I expect to do most times out.”

Verlander won his first game since beating the Mariners on July 24, 2020 — Opening Day of the COVID-shortened season. He injured his arm during that game and attempted a comeback before undergoing ulnar collateral ligament surgery in his right elbow two months later.

Friday’s win was the 227th of Verlander’s career, during which he crossed the 3,000-inning career threshold when he finished the seventh inning. He’s the 138th pitcher in AL/NL history to throw 3,000 innings and joins former teammate Zack Greinke as the only active pitchers to reach that mark.

“I still believe wholeheartedly that innings matter in the long scheme of things,” he said. “They matter in a 162-game season. If you’re able to go out there and throw 200-plus innings, even if it’s not the most stellar of innings, that benefit to the bullpen is tremendous. Baseball’s lost that a little bit. It’s one of those things it’s hard to put a value on in an analytic world. If you can’t put a value on it, you just poo-poo it. Those of us who have been around the game for a while know that’s something important.”

Astros catcher Martín Maldonado said he knew Verlander was in for a big night from the first pitch he threw warming up in the bullpen, saying it made his job “easy.” Verlander threw 87 pitches, including 64 for strikes. That included 19 first-pitch strikes to the 27 batters he faced. He generated 17 swings and misses.

“His ability to throw his fastball any time he wanted it, where he wanted it, the ability to throw his curveball any time, slider any time,” Maldonado said, “it was like he never left.”

Verlander, who gave up one run in five innings in his first start of the season a week earlier, was at 73 pitches through seven innings Saturday. Had the Astros put up a couple of runs in the eighth, his night was done. A quick inning on offense by Houston, however, allowed Verlander to stay warm on a cold night and come back out for a 1-2-3 eighth.

“When it turned out to be a quick inning, there really wasn’t much more conversation,” he said.

The life on Verlander’s fastball, which averaged 94.4 mph, was only part of the story. He located his slider well, which he didn’t do in his first start, and mixed in the curve well to left-handers. Simply put, the Mariners had no shot.

“I think it’s pretty obvious from probably the first, second inning that he had his stuff on tonight,” Mariners first baseman Ty France said. “He’s been doing it for a long time, and you’ve just got to tip your cap. He had the upper hand on us tonight.”

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