HOUSTON — The fact that Astros pitcher Justin Verlander threw 100 pitches in a game on Wednesday afternoon for the first time since he underwent Tommy John surgery 1 1/2 years ago served as an important benchmark in Verlander’s recovery.
In shutting down the Mariners in a 7-2 win at Minute Maid Park to complete a three-game series sweep, Verlander held Seattle to two runs on five hits in 6 2/3 innings and he threw 101 pitches — his most since Sept. 12, 2019. That was his last full season of work, the year he won his second American League Cy Young Award.
Verlander, who missed all of last season, surpassed his previous season high of 91 pitches, which came on Thursday in Arlington. Getting over the 100-pitch threshold against the Mariners was a “big deal,” he said.
“It’s something we’ve been trying to work on and build up smartly,” Verlander said. “Obviously, we’re in a six-man rotation right now and just trying to get myself back to being able to be in that routine, and throw that many pitches. I think the next big hurdle is seeing how I respond from this. You never know what’s going to happen.”
The Astros went to a six-man rotation last week when they began a stretch of 33 games in 34 days. The extra rest figured to benefit Verlander, who had thrown only one game in the previous two seasons. In many ways, he said he’s still in his post-surgery rehab when it comes to building up his arm strength.
“There’s peaks and valleys in this rehab and even when you come back, it’s not done yet,” Verlander said. “I’m interested to see how I respond tomorrow and get ready for my next start. The next thing to check off is working on a regular five-day rotation or five-day rest. That’s something I would like to be able to do.”
The Astros aren’t in any need to revert to a five-man rotation any time soon. Their starting pitching, led by Verlander, has been terrific of late. Houston starters are 7-2 with a 2.25 ERA in the last 10 games, including seven quality starts. For now, that’s fine with Verlander, who’s still seeing how his body responds to pushing himself each time out.
In 32 2/3 innings this year, Verlander has allowed seven runs on 19 hits and four walks to go with 31 strikeouts. He has a 1.93 ERA, .171 opponents’ batting average and a 0.70 WHIP. Verlander entered his most recent start ranked first in the AL in WHIP, second in opponents’ average and seventh in ERA.
Verlander said getting back on the mound this year has been like trying to break in a new car.
“We’re not trying to hit the accelerator too fast,” he said. “Just allow my body to get used to pitching again, allow it to get used to throwing 100 pitches again safely and allow it to get used to going in a five-day rotation. We’re kind of massaging it, I guess, you could say. I appreciate their willingness to hopefully get back to being able to throw 110, 120 every five days.”
Verlander sent down 18 of the first 21 batters he faced through six innings, with three batters reaching on singles, one of which could have been called an error. He threw first-pitch strikes to 17 of the 24 batters he faced, including 12 of the first 14.
“I try to be aggressive especially when we get an early lead,” Verlander said. “Obviously, they were being aggressive and so was I, but got a lot of first-pitch outs with it. Especially as the game went on and we had a four- or five-run lead, if they’re going to continue to be aggressive that behooves me, and if I can just make some pitches early in counts and get some quick outs, that allows me to go later in the game.”
Verlander carried a shutout into the seventh inning before his ex-Tigers teammate Eugenio Suárez hit a 441-foot rocket over the left-field fence with one out for a two-run homer, which Verlander said “kind of irks me.”
That was the only blemish on an otherwise effortless afternoon for Verlander, who was in such control through six innings that he recorded nine of 18 outs on three pitches or fewer, and he had reached a three-ball count twice.
“Up and down the lineup, we really didn’t put much pressure on him at all today,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “And I think we’ve certainly seen Verlander better, but he pitched. He used all of his pitches. He’s not going to walk you. He’s got a really good feel, and it’s probably why he’s headed to the Hall of Fame someday.”