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Justin Verlander Provides The Astros An Opportunity, But Suffers Rare Game 1 Loss

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As Justin Verlander made his way through the pitch-black tunnels outside the Astros’ clubhouse late on Sunday night to take in his team’s 2-0 loss in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park, a mounted television flickered overhead.

A statistic voiced by one of the on-air hosts remained with Verlander as commentary poured from the screen: 22 of the 37 teams who won Game 1 of the ALCS since it switched to a best-of-seven format in 1985 went on to win the series. That’s 59.5 percent, which is not so bad compared to a coin toss.

“We lost Game 1 in the World Series last year. We’ve lost Game 1 of some playoff series before,” Verlander said. “And that’s the great thing about this team. Obviously, nobody is sitting in the locker room right now happy. But it’s very matter-of-fact: ‘OK, we just got punched. How do you answer?’”

That’s basically how Verlander saw his 14th career Game 1 start, which ranked second all-time behind Andy Pettitte’s 46, and his 36th career postseason start. With two runs allowed over 6 1/3 innings, he had thrown well enough to win, but he was unable to get Texas to crumble like he had in some of his best outings.

“They’ve been a prodigious offense all season long, and you know your work is cut out for you,” Verlander said. “A lineup like that is so deep that you can’t focus on a pocket of hitters and say, ‘If I don’t let them beat me, I’ll be good.’ Every one of their guys has the opportunity to beat you. You’ve got to be on your game, one through nine. And if you’re not, they’ll make you pay.”

Verlander gave up Jonah Heim’s run-scoring single in the second inning of Game 2 of the AL Division Series after pitching six shutout frames in Game 1 against the Twins. The right-hander gave up three hits and a walk in that frame, but he still managed to limit the damage by getting Marcus Semien to fly out with the bases loaded.

Although Verlander finished with five strikeouts, he had none through four innings, which was a first for him since 2015. In the first five innings, he only produced one swing and miss.

“It’s been our approach all postseason to just get on the heater and try to put it in play,” Heim said. “We know he has an amazing extension and vert [vertical break/rise]. It’s our job to just get on top of it the best we can, and that was kind of the game plan.”

As the game went on, Verlander’s performance—which he characterized as being “so-so”—seemed to become better. Leody Taveras, the No. 9 hitter, pounced on a hanging slider in the fifth inning for a solo home run. Verlander threw 36 sliders in Game 1 for the Astros, and manager Dusty Baker claimed that only one of them lacked bite.

“I was a bit erratic the first couple of innings, especially [with] fastball control,” Verlander said. “I thought it cleaned up as the game went along. I started finding my groove there in the last few innings. One bad pitch resulted in another run to Taveras there.”

The Rangers’ Jordan Montgomery outpitched Justin Verlander for the most part; this is the first postseason game where both starters have lasted at least six innings.

“They say good pitching beats good hitting, but when you don’t hit, everybody wants to know what’s wrong,” Baker said. “There’s not a whole bunch to say. [Montgomery] threw a real good game against us.”

Verlander admitted that he normally does not watch the Astros when they are in the batter’s box, instead choosing to find some peace and quiet in the tunnel that runs between the dugout and the clubhouse. However, he could tell that Montgomery was frustrating the hitters from the short half-innings.

“Jordan pitched incredibly well,” Verlander said. “With the way the innings were going, obviously he was on his game and did a great job. Sometimes you have to tip your cap and say, ‘All right, get them tomorrow.’”

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