New Astro Justin Verlander: Important to 'make a good first impression'

10:25 a.m. ET Sept. 6, 2017  SEATTLE -- Justin Verlander wearily looked Tuesday night at the clubhouse clock. It was nearly 11 p.m. Most of his teammates had already departed for the team bus, and he had yet to shower.

Suddenly, all of that adrenaline that fueled him during the day, was being engulfed by fatigue.

Verlander, 35, sat down in front of his locker and began to unwind, reflecting not only on his first day on the job with his new team, the Houston Astros, but the whirlwind of these last five days of his life.

Here he was, having dinner with his fiancée, model Kate Upton, in the upscale suburb of Detroit last Thursday, and 120 hours later, was surrounded by new teammates, celebrating his first victory as an Astros’ pitcher, and honored with the heavy championship belt as the pitcher of the game.

“Can I talk about this?’’ Verlander yelled over to outfielder Jake Marisnick. “Is it Ok to talk about this thing with the media, at all?’’

Marisnick, almost sheepishly, quickly gave his approval, and, oh, by the way, considering Verlander’s resume, what he means to the city of Houston, and what he represents as the face of the Astros’ World Series championship aspirations, Verlander was subtly informed he’s got the freedom to talk about anything he wishes.

This is as much as Verlander’s team now as anyone in the clubhouse, given the responsibility to take this franchise where they never have gone before in its history.

So even though this was one night, and hardly a critical game with the Astros owning a 14-game lead with just 24 games remaining, to Verlander, it meant everything.

You see, he’s the new guy from the Detroit Tigers. The guy who’s the Astros’ finest pitching acquisition since Roger Clemens. The guy who’s supposed to be on the mound in every big game in October, throughout three rounds of the postseason, when they are the last ones standing.

He wasn’t about to let anyone down now, not in his first start against the Seattle Mariners. When the game ended, with Verlander pitching six innings -- six hits, one run, one walk, seven strikeouts -- and former Tigers teammate Cameron Maybin hitting the go-ahead homer, and closer Ken Giles nailing down the 3-1 victory, only then did Verlander permit himself to exhale.

“It was really important for me to make a good first impression,’’ Verlander told USA TODAY Sports. “There were so many different emotions that I’m not used to. There was a different nervous level.

“The closest thing I can liken it too is opening day, but it’s still different. You have the weight of this team. The weight of the city. And a lot of people looking at you to have success.

“It’s not like the season is riding on your first start, by any means, but you don’t want to come out and lay an egg either.

“You want to set a tone for what you’re about. Hopefully, I did that.’’

Oh, did he ever, with a sixth inning that could resonate for a long as he wears an Astros’ uniform.

“I would tell you the sixth inning was worth the price of admission,’’ Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “That was as impressive a finish of an outing as we could ask for.’’

Indeed, particularly considering that Hinch momentarily stopped breathing, GM Jeff Luhnow felt faint, and Verlander’s mind went numb, when Robinson Cano led off the sixth inning with a line drive off Verlander’s right wrist. It caromed off Verlander’s chest and bounced away.

“Hell yeah, I was worried,’’ Hinch said. “I didn’t know where it hit him at first, but it got him in the wrist. He didn’t flinch. He was more (upset) than anything. There was no way he wanted to come out of the game.’’

The only thing that was knocking him out of this game, Verlander later confided, was a broken wrist. And, for a frightening moment there, he was unsure if he broke a bone.

“When I got hit,’’ Verlander said, “it was like, 'Where’s the ball?’ A typical response. And once I realized it was landing towards the third-base line, and I had no chance to get him out, that’s when I said, 'Ok, is it broke? Is it broke?’

“You have that second or so of numbness. So when it’s broke, you know when it is. That pain is different than being hit by a ball pain. I felt it, but it wasn’t that kind of numbness that comes with a broken bone.’’

Verlander, finding himself surrounded by virtually the entire organization, picked up the baseball, threw one warm-up pitch, and shooed everyone off the mound.

“I couldn’t believe it, that thing hit him square on the wrist,’’ Astros catcher Brian McCann said. “It got him pretty good. But he’s just old-school. He was like, 'Let’s go.’ It was pretty awesome.’’

Verlander stayed in, but was greeted immediately by Nelson Cruz, with a single to right field. Suddenly, Hinch had the bullpen warming up.

The only one that would be left with a broken bone would have been Hinch if he dared take Verlander out of the game.

“That’s why he’s one of the best pitchers in the league, even at 13 years of service,’’ Hinch says. “Guys like him live for that moment, when the situation empties its tank, that brings out his best stuff.

“He wasn’t about to come out of that game.’’

Verlander, now facing Kyle Seager, who hit a homer off him in the fourth inning, fooled him with an 83-mph curveball, inducing a double-play grounder. Five pitches later, he had Mitch Haniger swinging at air on his fastball, ending the threat, the inning, and really, the game.

The pitch, his 103rd of the game, was clocked at 99 mph.

“I was hoping,’’ Verlander said, “to hit 100.

“I can take a deep breath now,’’ he says. “I think my home opener will be pretty exciting, but it’s nice to get this one under my belt. There were a lot more nerves than I thought there’d be.

“It was unknown. I just didn’t want to let everybody down.’’

This is the man they’ve been talking about all season. The man they wanted more than any other player in baseball. When he was on the trade market in July, they tried to acquire him. Never once did the Tigers exchange names on a potential trade.

When August rolled around, and after several Astros’ venters publicly unveiled their frustration, they tried again. They knew they had to wait. Verlander, who had a full no-trade clause, wanted to go to the Los Angeles Dodgers or New York Yankees. When they didn’t show strong interest, Verlander was secretly hoping for the Chicago Cubs to make a move. 

It came down to the Astros or no one.

“We talked,’’ Astros ace Dallas Keuchel said, “and I reassured him that this would be a great place for him. I told him, 'Hey, you won’t regret coming here. I know your legacy is pretty much cemented in Detroit', but I said, 'We want to top off your legacy by winning a World Series.’"

The Astros, with a magic number of 11, know they’re going to win the AL West. They don’t know who they’ll be playing the first round, but are confident they’ll wind up with the home-field advantage. And whoever they play in the ALCS, or meet later in the World Series, they’ve got the confidence now they can beat anybody.

One man has made that kind of difference.

“We’re all pretty excited,’’ Astros All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa said. “It’s a great time to be an Astro. We got Justin Verlander. We got Dallas Keuchel. We got everybody we need.

“I don’t know if we’d feel this confident if we hadn’t traded for him, but this sure increases our chances, that’s for sure.’’

Verlander can hardly call himself a Texan, but he feels like home. The young players already are gravitating towards him. The veterans are hanging out with him. Hinch has already confided in him, giving him the respect as if he had spent his entire career with their organization.

Verlander, with an American League MVP award and a Cy Young award in his trophy case, says he’s still haunted by the fact he doesn’t have that ring. There were so many near-misses during his 13-year career with the Tigers. There was the 2006 World Series loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. The 2012 World Series sweep by the San Francisco Giants. And that gut-wrenching David Ortiz grand slam for the Boston Red Sox in the 2013 American League Championship Series.

“I remember,’’ Verlander softly says, “how can I not?’’

The pain never quite subsided, with Verlander always wondering whether he’d ever get another opportunity, a chance to pitch again in the postseason, desperately wanting to make a difference.

Now, when he had lost hope of being in the postseason, he found himself wearing a strange uniform Tuesday trying to make sense of this whirlwind week.

“It’s still hard to believe,’’ Verlander said, late in the evening, “but it’s sunk in now. I’m here. The guys have made me so comfortable. They made feel like I belong.

“Believe me, I can get used to this.’’

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