If you’ve watched enough Justin Verlander starts, there’s always a feeling he has one last card to play when he absolutely needs it. That mostly comes from his habit of keeping his fastball velocity just low enough to be a tease early in his starts, and then somewhere later when he really needs it he’ll pull out 97 or 98 MPH and blast his way out of trouble. It’s been that way for 18 years.
Verlander’s season has sort of been that way in 2023. There was no reason to pull out the full arsenal with the Mets floundering and coming back from injury as well. He started his return to the Astros with a miserly August (2.79 ERA, 4-to-1 K/BB ratio), but September has been rockier (4.24 ERA, including getting paddled around by Oakland). Perhaps being 40 had finally caught up to him. Or maybe he was just saving it for October.
For the Astros to get to October though, they need to negotiate some obstacles they put in front of themselves by coughing up a hairball against the Royals and A’s of late. A three-game set in Seattle set up as a pretty big deal. But Verlander hardly seemed fussed in Monday’s series opener.
The aging maestro tossed eight innings of one-run ball (one of the few runners he surrendered scored in the ninth after he had exited), striking out eight and walking one while allowing a very antisocial three hits. At one point, he put 16 straight Mariners hitters right back where they came from.
Verlander pitched backwards most of the night, as he doesn’t really have the 97 or 98 to go to when he breaks the glass in case of emergency. Instead, he had the M’s flummoxed all night with curves and sliders when they expected fastballs and vice versa. He threw just as many curves and sliders in first pitches of an at-bat as he did fastballs, and yet most of his pitches at 0-2 or 1-2 were fastballs, and fastballs at the top of the zone or higher.
If the Ms end up doing their own autopsy at the end of this week (I know, but just go with it), they’ll probably find that when they ended up with their face in the dirt in the most important games of the past month it was because the starters they faced never gave them fastballs to hit. Jordan Montgomery on Saturday threw sliders for nearly half his pitches. Seattle didn’t score off of him. Dane Dunning did the same on the previous Friday. When the Dodgers swept them in T-Mobile Park, Bobby Miller threw over half change-ups and curves, Clayton Kershaw had nearly half of his offerings be sliders, and Ryan Yarborough (after an opener) only threw cutters and curves. Same story when the Rays took three-of-four the previous week in Tampa. This would seem to be the book on the M’s.
And now they’re a game and a half back of the Astros and three back of the Rangers, though they have the tiebreaker on Houston if they can recover the last two games of the series. And they’ll most likely have to do it without seeing much heat.
Padres could be hitting rebuild
The other baseball story making the rounds was that the Padres, after this extremely weird season, very well may try and go less opulent next season, and possibly with a new GM, or new manager, or both.
That has sent the fans of a lot of teams into Juan Soto tinged vapors, but it isn’t quite that simple. San Diego has plenty of cash coming off the books after this season, with the likes of Josh Hader, Blake Snell, Drew Pomeranz, and Rich Hill heading toward free agency. The Padres would also probably love to find a way to get Joe Musgrove and/or Yu Darvish off their books in order to find the cash to keep Snell around. Right now, there’s only $158 million slated for the Padres’ payroll next season, though that will jump by at least $30 million when Soto’s arbitration hearing is over.
Snell might cost even more for next year, as he’ll likely be hitting the market off a second Cy Young Award, as last night was his fourth outing of giving up no runs out of five in September, which makes for a cool 0.50 ERA when voters are paying the most attention. He’ll probably command a deGrom or Scherzer level deal, which may price the Padres out.
The other side is that a trade of Soto, even with only a year left on his deal, could help replenish a prospect pipeline that has basically been stripped clean. For yet another offseason, the Padres will be a pivot point for the whole league.
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