HOUSTON — Get past the slugging Twins and this is what is waiting for the Yankees — Justin Verlander at the top of his pitching game.
Verlander will open Game 1 of the ALDS for the Astros against the underdog Rays on Friday at Minute Maid Park. Here is the bad news for Astros opponents, Verlander is only getting better, according to his manager, A.J. Hinch.
Asked Thursday by The Post what makes Verlander Verlander, Hinch said: “He’s never afraid to evolve and he’s always seeking a way to get better.
“Video, changing a pitch grip, changing the pitch type. Just while he’s been an Astro for a short period of time I’ve watched him learn a pitch in a bullpen session and take it into an ALCS game and use it with the bases loaded,” Hinch said. “I’ve watched him change mid-game a game plan that he had worked 48 hours on how to pitch a certain opponent.
“He just evolves all the time.”
Then there is this.
“It’s funny, yesterday we were walking out and you start talking. ‘Hey JV, while you’re pitching over the next five years’ and he’s like, ‘Why not 10?’ He’s ultra-prepared. He’s never afraid. He believes in his convictions and he believes in his preparation and he is aging quite well.”
Are we looking at the baseball version of Tom Brady?
Asked about his future Verlander, 36, said, “I don’t know. I guess I kind of pegged this like 45 number. Whether that is realistic or not, I don’t know. I know I’m not going to continue to sell myself short. I am going to continue to do all the work that I can. I’m going to continue to adapt, going to continue to work my butt off in the offseason and then do all the kind of maintenance stuff and whatever new things come around that I need to adjust within a season.”
That sounds a lot like TB12. Just call him JV35.
Whatever it takes. Verlander threw a no-hitter this year, his third, as he went 21-6 with a 2.58 ERA. The right-hander led the majors in wins, opponents’ batting average (.172), WHIP (0.80) and innings pitched (223). He also hit the 3,000-strikeout milestone and achieved his first 300 strikeout season. Just another Cy Young-type season.
As Verlander talked, you could just see the competitive fire taking over. That he is paired with Ace II in Gerrit Cole (20-5 with a 2.50 ERA), you see how scary an opponent the Astros are, and then there is Zack Greinke, too.
Verlander is keeping a close eye on Greinke.
“I know Zack is somebody who I’ve been watching intently just because he’s been one of the few guys that’s been able to excel with lower velocity as he has aged — it’s been pretty incredible to watch,” Verlander said. “I’ve been talking to him a lot about some of the stuff he’s done, how he changed his pitching style.”
It all comes down to a healthy arm and a healthy desire to beat the opponent.
“I know the arm is healthy,” Verlander said. “I know the fire is still there. The competitiveness is still there. As long as that’s there, I’m going to try to just thrive as long as I can.”
Verlander and Cole give the Astros a pitching combo like Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling gave the 2001 Diamondbacks.
“I like when they get mentioned in the all-time greats,” Hinch said of his two aces. Cole is a free agent after the season so this could be it.
“That’s also a team that won a World Series. So that’s good if you like winning World Series. I don’t care what duo you bring up,” Hinch added. “I’m going to say [Verlander and Cole] are the best because they’re ours. When you talk about some of the records they’re breaking and some of the duos they’re talking about, that’s pretty heady stuff.”
The Astros have been great for Verlander, but he’s also been great for them the past three years.
“I think people tend to forget how well I was pitching in Detroit after I came off an injury as well, before I got here,” Verlander said.
JV35 all the way.