What defines a legacy?
Justin Verlander’s legacy surely could not have rested on this one game, could it? He is favored to win his third Cy Young award this year, and the list of three-time winners is eminently distinguished: Sandy Koufax, Clayton Kershaw, Pedro Martínez, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer and Max Scherzer.
Hall of Famers all, or Hall of Famers to be, Verlander included.
Before Thursday, Verlander had started eight World Series games. He had won none. If the postseason is a crapshoot — and we have heard that for two decades now — can the legacy of a player with 482 starts in the regular season truly be tarnished by the results of a handful of games in October and November?
“That’s what people remember,” Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “I mean, I got 2,000 wins and all they talk about is I haven’t won the World Series yet. You know? So what’s the difference? You know what I mean?
“So, yeah, it matters. It matters to the people. It matters to us.”
Of course it does. Kershaw, the greatest pitcher of this generation, fell short so often in October that, in the aftermath of a particularly painful defeat, he said this: “Everything people say is true right now about the postseason.”
That was in 2019. In 2020, the Dodgers finally won the World Series, Kershaw sparkled in winning both of his World Series starts, and the demons were exorcised.
On Thursday, 16 years after he made his World Series debut, Verlander recorded his first World Series victory. And, on Saturday, 20 years after he managed his first World Series game, Baker might be able to call himself a World Series-winning manager.
The Astros won Game 5 of the World Series by a 3-2 score, and they lead the best-of-seven series by a 3-2 margin. The Astros’ Game 6 starter is set to be Framber Valdez, whose undefeated postseason includes six shutout innings against Philadelphia in Game 2.
Verlander was not particularly sharp. He gave up a home run to the first batter he faced, Kyle Schwarber. The Astros had the bullpen up behind him in the second inning, and again in the fourth.
The Phillies loaded the bases in the second inning and put runners in the scoring position in the third. In the first three innings, Verlander walked four batters, more than he had walked in any of his previous starts this season — 37 in all, postseason included.
“Is he on a short leash?” Baker said before the game. “I mean, no, he doesn’t have a leash at all. I mean, he’s Justin Verlander. Nobody can get out of trouble better than him.”
Truth be told, Baker would have been perfectly justified — smart, even — in pulling Verlander from the game after four innings. The Phillies had the premium part of their batting order due up in the fifth, and the Astros held tight to a one-run lead.
But five innings is the minimum required for a starting pitcher to earn a victory, and Verlander escaped the fifth. With Bryce Harper on second base, representing the tying run, Verlander needed 10 pitches to retire Nick Castellanos on a fly ball.
In all, Verlander needed 94 pitches to endure five innings. The home run to the first batter turned out to be the only run he gave up.
“It wasn’t easy,” he told Fox during the game. “It was a lot of work.”
So was the eighth inning, when all Verlander could do was watch. The Phillies got the tying run to third base with one out, but Houston closer Ryan Pressly entered and turned back the home team, striking out ex-Angel Brandon Marsh and getting Schwarber to ground out sharply.
Verlander has struck out more batters than any pitcher in postseason history, just ahead of Kershaw. He has given up more home runs than any pitcher in World Series history. His World Series earned-run average stands at 5.06.
No matter. He is no longer winless in the Fall Classic. On Saturday, for the first time as a manager, Baker could hold the championship trophy.
The Astros are 27 outs from another piece of metal.