Justin Verlander dazzles in Game 5 of the World Series; Astros one win away

PHILADELPHIA – If Game 5 of the World Series on Thursday night was Justin Verlander’s last outing with the Astros, then the team and his fanbase will remember him for his courage, for fighting off tough shots and ultimately , for shoving.

At times, Verlander’s departure felt like a step back. He navigated traffic on base paths like only a 17-year-old major league veteran could. Composed and unflappable, Verlander’s best moments in the Astros’ 3-2 win — the first World Series win of his storied career — against the Phillies came while he was struggling.

Take, for example, the immediate seconds after Kyle Schwarber carried Verlander deep on his second pitch of the night. Heading from the bottom of the first, Schwarber burned Verlander’s fastball at 93 mph into right field and quickly erased the lead that Astros shortstop Jeremy Peña had just given Houston in the top of the inning.

The momentum had changed decidedly in favor of the Phillies as a swarm of fans waving red towels threatened to rupture everyone’s eardrums. It didn’t bode well for Verlander as his World Series history knocked on his door. The solo shot he gave away to Schwarber also put Verlander in the record books as the pitcher with the most World Series homers allowed (10) in MLB history.

Verlander responded to this instant adversity by striking out five of his next six batters. He worked with catcher Martin Maldonado, he made his throws and he kept the Phillies from taking advantage of that change in momentum.

Shortly after, in the second inning, the Phillies turned up the pressure on Verlander again by loading the bases with two outs. Although Verlander’s fastball has been his nastiest throw over the years, the 39-year-old found his slider again to knock out Rhy Hoskins on five pitches and leave the bases loaded in the second. Once again, he smothered the Phillies’ source of propulsion.

In the days and hours leading up to that outing, there was much speculation as to whether Verlander was the right guy to start Game 5. His World Series record – a 6.07 ERA in eight starts career in the World Series, including Game 1 of this year – weighed heavily. Less than a week ago, the Phillies got to Verlander in just their second round in order, rallying for six costly hits against the veteran and ultimately staging a five-run comeback.

That comeback was paired with Astros manager Dusty Baker’s questionable decision to leave Verlander in the game long enough for the Phillies to tie it at 5-5. Now, fast forward just a few hours before Verlander’s Game 5 kicks off and Baker has once again indicated he’ll stick with his ace in tough situations.

“Anyone wondering if he’s on a short leash? No, he’s not on a leash at all,” Baker said before the game on Thursday. “I mean, it’s Justin Verlander. No one can pull it off better than him.”

The time came again in race five for Verlander to prove his wise skipper right. With the Astros leading the Phillies 2-1, Bryce Harper came into scoring position after snatching a double to right field from Verlander. The tying run was one hit from goal. No one would have blamed Baker for snatching Verlander from the start, then in favor of right-hander Hector Neris, who was warming up in the Astros bullpen.

But no leash means no leash. True to his word, Baker didn’t budge an inch even when Nick Castellanos fouled out of court after court against Verlander. Slider, fastball, slider, slider, fastball, slider, changeup, curveball, curveball, slider. Verlander, approaching 100 shots in what was almost certainly his last outing of the year, emptied the tank against Castellanos. Finally, on the 10th shot from the stick, Verlander had Castellanos bite, causing a flyout to left field for the final of the fifth.

Verlander, knowing immediately that this one was going to stay in the park, watched left fielder Yordan Alvarez secure the ball from Castellanos in his glove. Verlander pumped his arm and shouted, “Let’s go!” Then he briefly touched the brim of his cap and calmly returned to the Astros dugout.

Eight rows behind Houston’s dugout was Verlander’s wife, Kate Upton, in a fuzzy orange jacket and orange backpack, the only one in her section to cheer as Verlander dodged bullet after bullet. While Verlander was the picture of calm, Upton jumped and jumped in front of his seat, taking full advantage of what could have been Verlander’s last start as Astro.

He blocked seven men on base in his outing of five innings, six strikeouts and 94 pitches. Schwarber’s home run on his first at bat of the night was the only run he allowed Thursday to cap off an incredible comeback season. He missed nearly all of the previous two seasons with a torn elbow ligament that required Tommy John surgery.

Verlander, 39, can enter free agency next week if he chooses to exercise his player option and explore the open market. There will certainly be teams in contention interested in locking down the arm that recorded the majors’ best ERA (1.75) this season, which will almost certainly earn it its third career Cy Young award next month.

His Game 5 departure against the Phillies only made Verlander even more attractive to franchises looking to add a future Hall of Famer who just demystified his World Series record. Despite endless criticism, speculation and doubt, Verlander showed up in one of the Astros’ most important games of the year. All eyes will be on what the brilliant pitcher decides to do next.

Deesha Thosar is an MLB Writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the Mets for the New York Daily News. Follow her on Twitter at @DeeshaThosar.

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