HOUSTON – Justin Verlander’s first question to A.J. Hinch as a member of the Houston Astros was about when he’d pitch – Tuesday in Seattle, he was told – which seemed as good a place as any to start a relationship both hope nets their first World Series championships.
The Astros, born in 1962, never have won one. Verlander, born a couple decades later, has not either. They arrive together, then, in September 2017, the team with the best record in the American League and the ace pitching near his best, with a month to prepare and then a month to win the thing, or not.
That they found each other now, with the Astros suddenly straining for wins, with Houston only in the past few hours sorting its tragedies from its more fortunate, made some sense as well. The world does not revolve around baseball, but it does save a little room for baseball even in the worst times, and so for those who seek distance or distraction or a reason to smile, Minute Maid Park will be happy to have them for a few hours at a time.
“We recognize our part in the healing,” Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said Friday morning. “Maybe it can be something to think about other than all the loss around them.”
Said manager A.J. Hinch: “I think it’ll bring hope, something to look forward to, while we rebuild this city.”
At the end of a chaotic week for the franchise, and a week far darker for those who bore the storm and will live with the consequences of it, the local baseball team made a high-wire trade that reaffirmed its intentions for October. Its cost in prospects – right-handed pitcher Franklin Perez, outfielder Daz Cameron and catcher Jake Rogers, who, respectively, became the Nos. 1, 6 and 8 prospects for the Detroit Tigers – and payroll was severe. But, so, too, was the chance of allowing a rich era of baseball in Houston to pass without an assertive act by a management team perhaps more given to the seeming reliability of methodical growth.
The Astros had worn years of difficult decisions and hard lessons to get here, to what will be their first division title in 16 years, to their second postseason appearance in 11 years. They forged a new plan for the moment that arrived, and for the right-hander who would stand beside Dallas Keuchel at the top of their rotation, and for the man who has made 16 playoff starts and won seven of them.
“Justin Verlander,” Hinch said, “is hands down the best possible outcome we could have.”
Luhnow had engaged the surrendering Tigers leading into the non-waiver trade deadline more than a month ago and then, he said, every couple days since. Not a week ago he’d said he had low expectations for adding a significant player to the Astros.
“There were just a lot of moving parts,” he said Friday. “There were several times throughout the month I thought the deal would happen. And there were several times throughout the month I thought the deal was completely dead.
“There were times I had my doubts even up to the last 20 minutes or so.”
Indeed, the deal was struck late Thursday, at which point the general managers were in agreement, ownership groups and Major League Baseball had signed off, and Verlander had agreed to waive his no-trade clause.
Asked to recount the details of those final minutes, Luhnow declined with a chuckle, saying, “Maybe someday I’ll right a book.” Neither would he comment on the financial details of the trade, including whether the club had agreed to guarantee the 2020 vesting option in Verlander’s contract, worth $22 million.
Instead, Luhnow lauded Verlander for his competitiveness, experience, clubhouse demeanor and pitching acumen. The Astros, run-away leaders in the AL West, find themselves in a fight for the best record in the American League. On Friday, following a rather clunky 11-17 August and enduring a difficult travel schedule due in part to Harvey, they held a 3½ -game lead over the Cleveland Indians. To that, they add Verlander from the Tigers and, shortly, Lance McCullers Jr. from the disabled list. They’re scheduled for a doubleheader Saturday against the New York Mets and another next Saturday in Oakland, in a stretch in which they’ll have two days off in a month. They’d require not only Verlander’s skill, turned out, but his innings as well, and they’re just getting started. Well, on Tuesday.
“He was so excited,” Hinch said of his conversation with Verlander, “and felt really good to join this type of contender.”
Of all Verlander has done, including a Cy Young Award, an MVP Award, a Rookie of the Year Award, along with various ERA and strikeout titles, Hinch said, “The one thing missing is a World Series ring. He let me know he wants to win, and he wants to win here.”