WASHINGTON, DC – Good as Justin Verlander is, he's the only pitcher in baseball history to go 0-5 in World Series games.
For all his excellence, Verlander has failed to close things out in the postseason, including losses in win-and-advance games in this year's AL Division Series and Championship Series.
The 36-year-old right-hander gets a chance to overcome both of those trends and help the Houston Astros clinch their second championship in three years when he starts Game 6 at home against Stephen Strasburg and the Washington Nationals on Tuesday night.
"That would obviously be a moment that ... I would cherish in my career, if that were able to happen," Verlander said Sunday before Houston beat Washington 7-1 to move out to a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.
With President Donald Trump in attendance, Gerrit Cole gave up one run in seven innings and struck out nine for Houston, while rookie Yordan Álvarez and Carlos Correa each hit two-run homers off Joe Ross, a surprise starter in place of an injured Max Scherzer. The three-time Cy Young Award winner was scratched just hours before Game 5 began because of an irritated nerve near his neck.
After dropping the opening two games in Houston by a combined score of 17-7, the Astros have switched everything around completely, taking all three games in Washington by a total tally of 19-3.
"If we win in front of our fans, it's just going to be so special," Correa said. "I think I'll black out for the first time in my life."
Houston will look to Verlander to end the World Series, even though he has not pitched up to the high standards he established while winning 225 games, collecting 2011 AL Cy Young and MVP honors and earning eight All-Star selections. After going 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA and 300 Ks during the regular season, this is what he's done in five postseason starts: 1-3, 4.15 ERA, 35 strikeouts, 11 walks.
That includes a 12-3 loss in Game 2, also while facing Strasburg.
Five days later, Verlander gets another shot at the Nationals.
"We've got J.V. on the mound. A J.V. day is fun. I've been watching that guy pitch for a lot of years," Astros reliever Joe Smith said. "He ain't slowing down."
Still, it's important to recall that two years ago, in another Game 6, he could have sealed the Fall Classic against the Los Angeles Dodgers — and even had a sixth-inning lead, but Houston wound up losing 3-1. The Astros did come back the next night to take Game 7 for the title.
Then, this October, Verlander got the ball on short rest for Game 4 of the ALDS against the Tampa Bay Rays, but again couldn't get the job done in a close-out game, giving up three runs in the first inning and losing 4-1. Once again, though, Houston won the next game to claim the series.
And in the ALCS against the New York Yankees, the same scenario played out: Houston could have advanced to this World Series by winning Game 5, but Verlander allowed four runs in the first inning of another 4-1 loss. Yet again, Houston won the next game to bail him out.
Strasburg, meanwhile, truly has been at his best this postseason, frequently relying more on a seemingly unhittable changeup or a right-where-he-wants-it curveball as out pitches, rather than the high-90s mph fastball he thrived with in earlier times.
The 31-year-old righty enters Tuesday with a 4-0 record, 1.82 ERA, 40 strikeouts and just two walks in five appearances, four as a starter.
"He has elite stuff," said Houston outfielder George Springer, who hit a two-run homer in the ninth Sunday. "The way he can command all three, four of his pitches, it's not fun to face. It's not easy."
Memorably shut down for the 2012 playoffs to protect his surgically repaired right elbow, Strasburg has a lengthy history of health issues. That includes no fewer than a dozen trips to the injured list, with two per year in 2010, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.
But not a single such stay in 2019, when he made 33 starts and led the NL with 209 innings while going 18-6 with a 3.32 ERA and 251 strikeouts. Add in his postseason innings, and his full-year total is 237, a career high.
His pitch total of 3,839, including October, also is the most for him in a year, as are his 17 outings of at least 100 pitches each, going 105, 117 and 114 over his last three games.
"I think mechanically I've been able to be a little bit more consistent when I go out there and pitch. Just made some minor tweaks in the offseason training program. I kind of put more emphasis on just strength, not so much endurance, and trying to get my weight up," said Strasburg, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft. "And I was able to kind of ride that throughout the year."
He's never taken the mound with nearly as much on the line as there will be this time.
"Winners come to play when their backs are against the wall. True competitors," Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton said. "We're going to see what we're made of in two days."
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