Verlander’s new Houston life beats the Tigers’ continuing one

Verlander leans in for a sign. All signs are great for him in Houston now, just as they're painful for his old friends in Detroit . . .

Verlander leans in for a sign. All signs are great for him in Houston now, just as they’re painful for his old friends in Detroit . . .

Do you get the feeling Justin Verlander simply prefers to pitch for a team with a realistic postseason shot? It’s not that he’s throwing steaks past wolves even in an Astros uniform, but since he came to the Astros in a waiver period deal making him eligible for the postseason, Verlander’s looked strong enough that the Astros must be thinking about him opening a division series, no questions asked.

On Tuesday night against the Angels, he thought nothing of losing three leadoff men and then stranding them with a little help from his new friends. Brandon Phillips, one of the Angels’ new veteran toys, opened for his new mates by rifling a double to left; then, Verlander rid himself of Mike Trout, Justin Upton, and Albert Pujols as if they were just flies to be swatted in the living room.

Trout wrung a leadoff walk in the fourth. Verlander merely got Upton to dial Area Code 6-4-3 before luring Pujols into a meek ground out. Verlander plunked Trout to open the Angels’ seventh. Then, he sandwiched Pujols’ fly out to center with a pair of swinging strikeouts on Upton and Kole Calhoun.

The Astros hung in for a 1-0 win and made a heartbreak out of Angel starter Garret Richards’ second start since coming off the disabled list. The Angels couldn’t get any runner past second while Richards pitched five strong with four punchouts for them.

“He just kept the ball down,” Phillips said of Verlander’s one-hit performance. “He was mixing pitches up. We weren’t able to hit his mistakes, and that’s just how baseball goes.”

In Phillips’s case, he not only couldn’t get past second, he couldn’t even stay on it when he arrived after turning a single to a double with one out in the ninth off Astros closer Ken Giles. Carlos Correa nudged him off the pad and tagged him after taking the throw in. This was one time familiarity bred admiration, Phillips himself having used the same little trick often enough playing second base.

“That’s the first time I fell for my own trick, so I salute him for what he did,” Phillips said with a little admiration in his voice after the game. “That’s the name of the game. I’m not mad about it because I would have done the exact same thing. I was on the bag, I just felt him giving me some extra loving.”

Giles shook it off and lured Trout into a game-ending ground out. Verlander was only too quick to credit his new pals and their leather and arms. “I told these guys after the game,” he said, “this defense is really special and makes our job easier to pitch to contact and know that if it stays in the yard we have a good chance to make a play on it.”

His new manager, A.J. Hinch, was just as quick to credit his new righthanded toy. “Verlander was exceptional. I thought his fastball was really good,” Hinch said after the game. “I thought he battled himself with his breaking ball until end and it got a little bit better as the game went on. He threw a couple of changeups, which is a good sign. He was in complete control of the game, obviously.”

It stopped a four-game Astros skid and pushed their magic number for an American League West clinch to five, while handing the Angels a fourth loss in five games, pushing the Halos two and a half behind the Twins for the second American League wild card. You’d have been hard pressed to find anyone more satisfied than Verlander, who admitted to being a little on the rusty side working on six days’ rest.

“Obviously, we have a bunch of other guys who could do the same thing on any given night,” the now-former Tiger said, “but on a night when we really needed it after a tough series and an off-day, you reset. Those are the things that make you feel good about it after the game, is we needed a big win today to get going again and we were able to get it.”

What of the guys Verlander left behind in Detroit? The Tigers absolutely had to trade Verlander when they made the waiver-deal deadline that meant Verlander is eligible to pitch for the ‘Stros in the postseason. But Verlander’s inconsistency on the season thus far meant the prospect haul in return couldn’t be huge and wasn’t. And the Tigers of necessity are finished with spending their way to contention.

“The Tigers must do all sorts of things that they haven’t done in twelve years,” wrote Sports Illustrated‘s Michael Rosenberg after the Verlander and Upton trades. “They need to focus on three years from now. They need to draft better than other teams, then hold onto the prospects. They need to find bargains on the free-agent market who can turn into trade chips down the line. They need to make savvy moves in the international market. And they need to trade everybody who gets good enough to trade until the team is competitive again.”

Mike Illitch’s death meant the end of the Tigers spending big now to win now. (Rosenberg: “All he wanted was to win the World Series. He died trying, and there is something admirable in that.”) If you thought such rebuilds as the one the Astros underwent to get where they are now and the White Sox are undergoing now are painful, the Tigers are about to show you a lot of you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

 

How does that Miguel Cabrera contract extension look now? Don’t ask. Rosenberg has the answer:

Good intentions were at the heart of Cabrera’s eight-year, $248-million extension. Cabrera is a lock for the Hall of Fame, a tremendous competitor and teammate, a frequently delightful guy and as tough as they come. He is a legend in Detroit. But committing that much money to a player who was 33 when his contract started was just not smart, and the Tigers finding out now what most of us figured out then.

Cabrera’s slash line this year is .252/.338/.405. The Tigers owe him $184 million. I don’t think Cabrera is finished. The great ones often find ways to squeeze more excellence out of themselves when we don’t expect it. Tim Duncan did it. David Ortiz did, too. Cabrera may have a healthy, All-Star-quality year or two left in him. (The Tigers should move him to designated hitter, where he is more likely to stay healthy and at least has a chance for an Ortiz-like finish to his career. But Cabrera has always resisted being a full-time DH. He would play 15 innings a day if he could.)

Even Michael Fulmer—lost for the season after surgery to relieve elbow nerve compression, but expected to be ready for spring training—could be expendable for the right package if he recovers, pitches up to his talent, and discovers the Tigers just can’t afford to meet his market value to be. They may be thinking about dealing him for a prospect haul come next July. Good thinking, if sad thinking, if true.

Meanwhile, Verlander enjoys a bit of new life pitching for the bona-fide contender the Tigers no longer were, and Upton just might have a shot at the postseason if the Angels scratch their way into one of the wild cards. That might be a big “if.” But it’s a lot better than what the two ex-Tigers’ former team has to look forward to for the next three to four years.

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