Justin Verlander gave the Yankees a glimpse of their own mortality in Sunday's 9-4 loss to the Astros.
Fortunately for them, it was Game No. 77. The only thing at stake was a potential sweep and staying perfect on this home stand.
What should be more worrisome is looking ahead to October, where these two teams certainly will end up, and another meeting with Verlander -- but in a do-or-die Game 7.
Verlander remains the difference-maker, just as he was during the 2017 American League Championship Series, when he went 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA in two starts to earn MVP honors. The Yankees had won three consecutive in the Bronx before Verlander stopped them cold in Game 6 at Minute Maid Park with seven scoreless innings to instantly flip the momentum.
Two years later, nothing's changed. Verlander has allowed a ton of home runs this season (who hasn't?) but stared down the Yankees in their cozy backyard, giving up only DJ LeMahieu's three-run blast during his seven-inning stint.
It's a reminder that no matter how much the Yankees continue to fortify their lineup in an effort to make this group Verlander-proof, there is no such thing. An elite, playoff-tested pitcher like Verlander will find a way, regardless of the muscle assembled against him.
As Luke Voit explained, Verlander didn't have his good breaking pitches early, so he "painted" with his fastball, then mixed in his curve ball and slider. It was a different approach from Verlander's last start against them back on April 8 in Houston when the Yankees had only one hit through the first four innings -- LeMahieu's single to open the game.
"That's why he's a Cy Young and a potential Hall of Famer," Voit said. "It's incredible that he was still throwing 97 in the seventh inning."
Now healthy, the Yankees threw their A-minus lineup at Verlander -- the lone punch pulled was sitting Giancarlo Stanton, who was 1 for 8 with 5 strikeouts lifetime against the Astros' ace. Brett Gardner started in his place and wrangled a walk and single, later scoring on LeMahieu's blast.
Otherwise, Verlander whiffed nine, and only one Yankee made it as far as second base. Voit, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Edwin Encarnacion combined to go 0 for 11 with a walk against Verlander, who entered Sunday tied for third in the majors with 20 home runs allowed, an average of 1.25 per start. The Bronx mound shouldn't have been an antidote for a fly-ball pitcher like Verlander, but that's his strength, defying convention by constantly adjusting to the situation.
"He doesn't get too much into patterns," Yankees Manager Aaron Boone said.
The Yankees have regretted not pushing harder to trade for Verlander in 2017 almost from the moment he first slipped on an Astros' uniform. Houston doesn't get past the Yankees that October without him, nor do they win the first World Series in franchise history. You can't over-emphasize what the Verlander trade has done for them, so it was a no-brainer for the Astros to give him that two-year, $66-million extension.
What we learned again Sunday is that adding more offense is not necessarily going to help you beat Verlander, and in the process, topple the Astros in a short series. Houston didn't pitch Gerrit Cole during this visit, and they also didn't have George Springer (hamstring) or Carlos Correa (broken rib). The Yankees did what they should in exploiting that advantage to win the first three games, but Verlander was every bit the roadblock they've come to anticipate.
The AL East leaders are going to need outside help, whether it's Madison Bumgarner, Marcus Stroman or Zack Wheeler. Brian Cashman thought he did enough over the winter in trading for James Paxton and bringing back Happ on that two-year, $34-million deal, but he's still noticeably short.
"I put us in a bad spot," Happ said after his Sunday start.
And Verlander, as he usually does, made sure the Yankees stayed there.
Sports on 06/24/2019
Print Headline: Verlander gives Yanks reason for pause