'He's a Hall of Famer-in-waiting': With Verlander from start, Astros could be even better in 2018

ARLINGTON, Texas -- If taking the ball on Opening Day is a mark of excellence, Justin Verlander belongs to a select group. On Thursday afternoon at Globe Life Park, he became the 18th pitcher in Major League Baseball history to start 10 season openers. CC Sabathia and Felix Hernandez are the only other active pitchers who can make that claim.

Verlander’s first nine openers came as the Detroit Tigers’ resident ace, so with the rare exception, he took the mound with a chill in the air. In 2012, the game-time temperature at Comerica Park was 43 degrees when he pitched eight shutout innings in a win over the Boston Red Sox. A year later, it was 35 degrees with 17 mph winds when he threw five scoreless innings in a 4-2 victory over the Minnesota Twins at Target Field in Minneapolis. Sled dogs were optional.

In Verlander’s first Opening Day start with the Houston Astros, the sun was out and the temperature crept into the low 70s, and he experienced the sensation of playing a regular-season game in late March without seeing his teammates wrapped in parkas in the dugout.

“It was a nice change of pace,” Verlander said. “You don’t think about the weather when you’re out there pitching. But it’s nice to be able to feel the ball.”

He is literally and figuratively warming to the next chapter of his career amid the comforts of the American League West.

Verlander shut down the Texas Rangers' lineup over six four-hit innings before Houston manager A.J. Hinch lifted him with 91 pitches in the ledger. The Astros were within an out of a shutout when closer Ken Giles gave up a run on a wild pitch in the ninth to account for Texas’ only score in a 4-1 Houston victory.

This game served as a reminder why Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow jumped through so many hoops to pry Verlander loose from the Tigers in a five-player trade in late August, and it showed why the Astros were downright euphoric over having Verlander and Gerrit Cole join a rotation that already included Dallas Keuchel, Lance McCullers Jr. and Charlie Morton.

“We have a rotation full of aces,” Houston third baseman Alex Bregman said. “Every day when we wake up, we get to play behind one of the best pitchers in the game, so it’s always going to be fun coming to the ballpark.”

Thursday’s opener featured something old and something new for the defending champions. George Springer, who was last seen demoralizing the Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitching staff in the World Series, hit a solo homer off Cole Hamels leading off the top of the first inning to give Houston a lead it never surrendered. As the Elias Sports Bureau notes, the homer off Hamels and his 2017 Opening Day dinger against Hernandez make Springer the first player to go deep to start a game in consecutive season openers.

The Astros also unveiled their four-man outfield alignment, which features Bregman stationed in left field and Josh Reddick, Jake Marisnick and Springer sliding over to enhance the Astros’ coverage in the pasture. Hinch used the strategy four times against Joey Gallo, and Texas’ big first baseman responded with three fly outs and a strikeout. The first one nestled in Bregman’s glove in left.

“It’s a lot further away, and it’s harder to see,” Bregman said. “When Gallo hits you a fly ball, it’s usually very high, so it’s a little nerve-wracking. I think our front office and our coaching staff know what they’re doing, and they play the numbers, so it’s fine.”

Everything looks easier when Verlander is cutting a swath through opposing lineups, and he was efficient until the sixth inning, when he allowed back-to-back singles to Elvis Andrus and Adrian Beltre and had to dig deep to strike out Nomar Mazara to end the threat.

Verlander averaged 95 mph with his fastball and topped out at 97, and he put up zeroes on a day when it was a challenge to throw the ball past the Texas hitters. The Rangers swung at 41 pitches and missed only nine.

The outing continued a pattern of excellence that Verlander established after joining the Astros from the Tigers. Between the regular season and the postseason, he went 9-1 with a 1.66 ERA, 81 strikeouts, 13 walks and a .164 opponents’ batting average for Houston in 2017. Not that there was anything wrong with his pitching before the trade, but he seemed invigorated by the change of scenery.

Several months and a world championship ring later, Verlander was grateful for the opportunity to christen another season in his new environs.

“It’s special,” Verlander said. “Opening Day is always special. There’s so much atmosphere. There’s the intensity. It’s a really unique experience, and I cherish every single one of them. The one I probably remember most is my first Opening Day [in 2006], when I wasn’t even pitching. I was just a fan sitting there and enjoying it. It was kind of a full-circle moment.”

Verlander is quickly building a fan base in Houston, and it emanates from the stands to the home clubhouse. The Astros have seen how he elevates the level of performance of the entire staff with his work ethic, positive example and professional advice. He’ll be around for 33 or 34 starts this season, and his new teammates consider each one a gift and a pleasure to behold.

“He’s a Hall-of-Famer-in-waiting,” Springer said. “As a player, you understand when you’re playing with greatness. And he’s it.”