PHOENIX — Justin Verlander missed the venom, the hatred, all of the viciousness the Houston Astros absorbed last year when fans returned to ballparks.
It was the first chance to express their anger towards for the Astros’ role in the infamous cheating scandal in 2017 when Houston won the World Series.
“If you’re going to miss two years,’’ Astros teammate Lance McCullers laughed, “he timed it perfectly.”
Verlander, the two-time Cy Young winner and former American League MVP, is back in vintage form after his 2020 Tommy John surgery, and on a mission to help turn that hatred into admiration, perhaps even respect.
The man has been dominant in his first two starts this season, going 1-1 with a 0.69 ERA, yielding just six hits and striking out 15 in 13 innings. He’s pitching as if he never left.
Verlander could have gone virtually anywhere as a free agent last winter, and despite not pitching for 18 months, still had eight teams bidding on his services.
He decided if he wants to win another World Series, there would be no better place than Houston.
Only this time, with no trash cans, no suspicions, just old-fashioned baseball proving the Astros are hardly a byproduct of electronic ingenuity.
This is a team that has been to the World Series three of the past five years, reaching the ALCS all five years, and has emerged as one of baseball’s best teams since the Yankees’ dynasty ended in 2001.
Just three hitters remain from that 2017 Astros team, but the Astros still hear the boos. They know they aren’t forgiven, and perhaps never will be, but there’s no better way to quiet the noise than winning another ring.
Verlander, 39, just could be the perfect man to lead the Astros to the mountaintop while proving he’s still one of baseball’s elite pitchers.
“Winning another World Series would mean a lot to so many guys in here,’’ Verlander told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s been hard to watch what these guys have gone through the last few years. They’ve had a lot of stuff to deal with, especially for a couple of guys.
“These guys have rallied around each other, and are still going out and playing unbelievable baseball. It’s such a close-knit team, and they’ve developed such a strong bond.
“Really, that’s why I chose to come back here.’’
Verlander could have gone to the New York Yankees as a free agent. The Toronto Blue Jays aggressively pursued him. So did Atlanta. In the end, he decided that Houston was the perfect home, signing a one-year, $25 million contract that can turn into a two-year, $50 million deal if he pitches at least 130 innings this season.
“I grew up a Braves fan, so it would have been cool to pitch for my childhood team,” Verlander said. “But when it came down to it, (wife) Kate and I evaluated it. We ranked the teams that we wanted to go to. And it was like, hey, Houston was No. 1 on our list for a reason.
“The relationship I had with (owner) Jim [Crane] and my teammates, the city itself, were the determining factors. I love it here. The guys here are just awesome. The city, the people, are unbelievable. They are so nice, so accommodating, and their attitude is infectious.
“The ballpark is a bandbox, but that’s OK.”
Now that Verlander is back, he wants to prove this is far from being a farewell tour.
He plans to keep on pitching, not only through this two-year contract, but until he’s 45 years old, if not longer.
Verlander has accomplished virtually everything imaginable as a pitcher, with his two Cy Young awards, MVP, eight All-Star appearances, five strikeout titles, three no-hitters, and an ERA title in his 17-year career.
“I’ve never set particular goals,’’ Verlander said, “but there’s still one big giant number out there.’’
Three hundred wins.
There are 24 pitchers in history who have won 300 games, only four in the past 30 years, and none since Randy Johnson in 2009.
Verlander, with 227 victories, wants to join that exclusive club.
“I care and work as hard as I possibly can, and however long that carries me,’’ Verlander said, “it carries me. If that gets me to 300 wins, great. If I get to 4,000 strikeouts, great. If it doesn’t by the time I’m done, I know I’ll have done everything I could possibly do. There will be stone unturned.
“I really believe there’s a lot left in the tank. I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t believe it wasn’t true.’’
Verlander, one of only 10 pitchers to undergo Tommy John surgery at the age of 37 or older and still return to the big leagues, never gave the slightest consideration to calling it quits.
The most challenging part was watching the Astros, along with the rest of baseball, go on without him. He and his wife moved to Jupiter, Florida after his surgery, working out at the Cressey Sports Performance facility. He would come home after the rigorous workouts, hang out with his wife and 3-year-old daughter, but refused to turn on a baseball game. He didn’t watch any sporting events .
The only time he really watched the Astros was in the postseason, and just when they were batting. Things can only go right at the plate, he figured, and things can only go wrong on the mound.
“In my mind, it was too difficult for me to watch baseball when I couldn’t play baseball,’’ Verlander said. “If I can’t play baseball, why am I going to obsess over it? And I’m obsessive about baseball.’’
Now, after last pitching in a game July 24, 2020, Verlander is throwing 96-mph again. He’s looking a whole lot like the guy who won the 2019 Cy Young award. He struck out reigning MVP Shohei Ohtani three times in his season debut against the Los Angeles Angels, giving up just three hits and one run while striking out seven in five innings, and for an encore yielded three hits in eight innings with eight strikeouts against the Seattle Mariners. He was the first pitcher to throw at least eight shutout innings, recording eight or more strikeouts with under 90 pitches, in a road game since Atlanta’s Greg Maddux in 1997 at Yankee Stadium.
“There’s some unfinished business here for me,’’ said Verlander, who was paid $45 million in the two seasons he missed. “I know it’s a business, I don’t owe anybody anything, per se, but for me, I like to earn my keep.
“I was making a lot of money for sure, but I would have traded all of that just to able to pitch. Every last cent.’’
Who knows, maybe another World Series title will validate the Astros’ dominance since 2017?
The Astros listen to players stepping forward now in their defense. Boston Red Sox ace Chris Sale, Chris Bassitt of the New York Mets, veteran outfielder Steven Souza of the Seattle Mariners, Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto and Kris Bryant of the Colorado Rockies have all come out to defend the Astros.
Sure, they were caught red-handed, but it’s absurd to think they were the only ones cheating. More than half of the teams in baseball were cheating, Souza says. Several of the teams complaining the loudest, Sale advises, better start look at themselves in the mirror.
“It’s unfortunate what happened, and I know here in this clubhouse it left a sour taste,’’ said Dodgers veteran pitcher David Price. “I get that. They may say something when they see the Astros on TV, but it’s not like guys are thinking about it every day.
“I think for the most part, people have moved on.’’
The Astro players appreciate the candidness of their peers, but know it doesn’t do them any good to talk about it. They could tell you plenty of stories they heard from other teams. There’s strong evidence of illegal sign stealing utilized by several shrewd front offices. Only no one wants to hear it.
It has been five years. It’s over. Time to move on.
“I just want to help this team get back to the postseason,’’ Verlander said, “get over the hump, and hopefully win it all. If we could do that, considering everything this team has been through, it would be awfully special to a lot of people.’’
Remembering Tom Seaver
The New York Mets had a beautiful ceremony unveiling a 10-foot-tall statue of Tom Seaver outside Citi Field before their home opener, bringing back a glorious memory for fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson.
Johnson was traded from the Montreal Expos to the Seattle Mariners in May 1989, and he joined the team in New York, where he was scheduled to start against the Yankees.
“I’m getting out of my cab with my suitcase at old Yankee Stadium,” Johnson said. “I’m dragging my suitcase when I hear someone yell, ‘Tiger.’ I went to USC, and (head coach) Rod Dedeaux called everyone, ‘Tiger.’ I look around, and it’s Seaver. He comes over, and then started helping me carry my suitcase down the stairs. Here he is, one of the greatest pitchers ever, and he’s helping me with my suitcase.
“I’ll never forget that.’’
The Los Angeles Dodgers did a marvelous job celebrating the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, with Robinson’s wife (Rachel), son (David) and granddaughter (Ayo) all in Los Angeles for events around the city.
It made one former Dodger, four-time 20-game winner Dave Stewart, rather proud.
“I grew up in East Oakland, was drafted by the Dodgers, and didn’t really understand what the Dodgers organization was all about,” Stewart said. “I never met Jackie, but I was surrounded by his legacy. Roy Campanella was around. So was Don Newcombe. Sweet Lou Johnson. Maury Wills.
“I used to talk to Don Newcombe every day. He was a mentor for me, a young black pitcher. I was just 18, and we could relate to each other. Newk told me the professionalism it took to be a Dodger. The high character was constantly brought into me.
“It’s not the uniform, but it’s the person inside the uniform that made the Dodger.’’
Around the basepaths
► While Dodgers starter Trevor Bauer’s camp threatened that he might try to rejoin the team on Sunday, MLB and union officials insist he won’t be permitted in the clubhouse, with his administrative leave extended through April 22.
There’s a written, binding agreement between MLB and the players union that prevents him from being activated, but clearly time is running out and Commissioner Rob Manfred must soon make a decision on Bauer’s status.
Bauer is expected to receive a suspension for a potential violation of MLB’s sexual assault and domestic violence policy, but Bauer most likely will appeal, no matter the length.
There have been 15 players who have been suspended under the policy, but all reached settlements in which they waived the right to appeal, with the suspensions ranging from 15 games to 162 games.
Bauer has been on administrative leave since July 2, 2021, last pitching June 28, before a San Diego woman accused him of sexual assault.
► The Boston Red Sox insist they want to retain shortstop Xander Bogaerts, even after signing Trevor Story to a six-year, $140 million contract, but they sure have a funny way of showing it.
Bogaerts, who can opt out of the final three years, $60 million in his contract, received only a one-year, $30 million contract extension in talks with the Red Sox.
He and agent Scott Boras quickly dismissed it.
The Red Sox never made another offer.
Bogaerts never countered.
They’ll touch base again after the season.
Certainly, all Bogaerts needs to see if that five shortstops signed free agent deals of at least $100 million this offseason, and he can argue that he has been the most productive of all of them.
► Several teams have reached out to slugger Justin Upton, recently released by the Angels despite owing him $28 million, but he continues to wait for a desirable team.
None of the teams who offered contracts, paying the pro-rated minimum, are contenders, and would likely sign him only to flip him at the trade deadline.
Simply, if he’s going to come back, he wants to make sure it’s a team with a chance to win.
Upton, 34, has not been in the playoffs since 2013.
► The sale price for the Washington Nationals, according to one interested investor who made inquiries?
Try $2 billion.
► Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson says that if MLB is serious about increasing its Black population among players, which is at 6.8%, it must take strides in the hiring of Blacks at the executive level.
“It makes me feel good that Jackie Robinson is recognized more for his contributions,’’ Jackson said, “but my sadness is that leadership doesn’t do the implantation that’s necessary to bring on minorities. We’re losing minorities that play the game because you don’t see minorities in the dugout, the sidelines, and in executive offices. Until that happens, you won’t see much change.”
► No one had a better winter than Boras, but when it came down to negotiations with the Angels, even he backed down.
The Angels used his suite, behind home plate, for advertising while fans were not attending games at the start of the pandemic.
Now, with this year’s season starting with no restrictions, Boras had a chance to reclaim his suite, at a hefty cost.
The Angels are getting $4 million in advertising from a Japanese company with its logo covering the entire face of the suite.
Sorry, but even with a winter negotiating in excess of $1 billion of contracts, Boras passed.
► Angels star Shohei Ohtani may be earning just $5.5 million this year, a pittance of what he truly is worth to the franchise.
But no reason to feel sorry for him.
He’s earning about $21 million a year off the field in marketing and advertising, easily the most in major league history.
► The Toronto Blue Jays could have a massive home-field advantage this season with unvaccinated players not permitted to play in Canada.
The Oakland A’s played without outfielder Stephen Piscotty, catcher Austin Allen and relievers A.J. Puk and Kirby Snead this past weekend.
The Canadian government is not allowing unvaccinated people to enter the country without special exemptions.
► Little wonder why Yankees starter Luis Severino was panicking when he accidentally left his PitchCom earpiece on the bench in his first start of the season.
The fine for losing those earpieces and electronic wristbands? $5,000.
► There have been no reported sewer leaks inside the Oakland Coliseum this year, but about 40 feral cats have infiltrated the entire Coliseum complex, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, roaming on the A’s outfield grass field and entering the Golden State Warriors’ former arena.
“The good news,’’ said Henry Gardner, stadium authority executive director, “is is the rat population has decreased substantially.”
► Angels manager Joe Maddon became the first manager to order an intentional walk with the bases loaded with his team trailing in a game since Jim O’Rourke of the Buffalo Bisons on Aug. 2, 1881.
Maddon ordered an intentional walk of Texas Rangers shortstop Corey Seager in the fourth inning with the Angels losing 4-2.
Angels right-handed reliever Austin Warren was stunned but said that he trusted Maddon, with the left-handed Seager coming to the plate.
“It was a great moment on the mound,” Maddon said. “It’s one of those Hallmark kind of moments on the mound, right there.”
The strategy backfired with the Rangers scoring three more runs, but the Angels got the last laugh, winning 9-6.
► The Arizona Diamondbacks, who went 52-110 last year, look even worse the first week of this season.
The Diamondbacks have hit just .135 the first seven games, easily the worst seven-game stretch in franchise history.
Only eight teams in baseball history have had fewer than the D-backs’ 28 hits in a seven-game span.
“It’s been pretty terrible,” D-backs outfielder Pavin Smith told the Arizona Republic.
► It was beyond time for the Mets to erect a statue of Seaver, the greatest player in franchise history, but it made no sense to do it on the same day as Jackie Robinson Day.
Couldn’t the Seaver ceremony have waited a day or two?
► Colorado Rockies outfielder Kris Bryant on seeing a horde of reporters and camera crews awaiting him at his locker before the Rockies played the Cubs this week at Coors Field: “I enjoyed my time in Chicago, but I don’t know if it warrants a press conference every time I play them.”
► The average MLB salary rose to $4.4 million this year in a study by the Associated Press, up 5.9% from last season, ending the four-year slide. The median salary is $1.2 million.
New York Mets starter Max Scherzer is the highest-paid at $43.3 million. The Dodgers once again had the highest opening-day payroll at $285 million, followed by the Mets at $266 million.
Scherzer will earn more than the entire Orioles team ($38 million). Their overall payroll is $58 million, but they have $20 million in dead money going to former first baseman Chris Davis.
► There are seven living men who played in Jackie Robinson’s final game on Sept. 30, 1956, at Ebbetts Field:
Vern Law, Roy Face, Bob Skinner, Hank Foiles, Frank Thomas (not the Hall of Famer), Dick Groat and Bill Mazeroski.
► Cleveland Guardians rookie Steven Kwan saw 116 pitches without swinging and missing at a pitch, the most by any batter to start his major league career since at least 2000. The streak ended when Kwan swung and missed on a curveball thrown by Cincinnati Reds starter Nick Lodolo last week.
► Ohtani, who had never given up a hit on an 0-and-2 split-finger pitch, made sure his first was a doozy, surrendering his first grand slam.
Hitters had been 0 for 58 with 41 strikeouts.
► So what did Yankees ace Gerrit Cole do when he gave up the second of three home runs hit by Blue Jays slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr. this week?
He tipped his cap.
“I mean, did you see the night he had?” Cole said. “If you had a cap, you’d tip it, too.”
► The average age of players this year is 29.35, with the Mets being the oldest team (31.13) and the Guardians the youngest (26.73).
There are five players who were born this century on opening day rosters: Wander Franco, Rays; C J. Abrams, Padres, Julio Rodriguez, Mariners; Bobby Witt, Royals
They are all at least half of the age of 42-year-olds Albert Pujols of the Cardinals and Rich Hill of the Red Sox.
► How stunning are Atlanta’s World Series championship rings?
There are 755 diamonds, in honor of Hank Aaron’s home run total, including 15 rubies and one white pearl.
Total weight: 13.3 carats.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Justin Verlander returns to Astros with World Series in mind, 300 wins