SEATTLE – Justin Verlander sat sprawled on the couch in the Houston Astros’ visiting clubhouse Monday afternoon, flanked by new teammates George Springer to the left and Tyler Clippard to the right, munching down on a sandwich, with music blaring on the speakers.
Verlander got up and grabbed a couple of scouting reports at his locker, but his attention was focused on teammate Carlos Correa in the corner of the room.
Verlander, who had heard the story making the rounds, walked over and simply had to know:
Was it true?
Did Correa, playing a game on his PlayStation 4, really get so excited upon hearing the news that Verlander was traded from the Detroit Tigers to the Astros that he actually threw his remote control in the air, crashing into the ceiling and breaking as it hit the floor?
“Yes, you want to see?” Correa excitedly said. “You want me to show you? I broke my own game.”
Verlander, 34 and 12 years Correa’s senior, laughed and retreated back across the room.
Correa’s reaction, it turns out, was not much different from the feeling throughout the Astros clubhouse. Springer, an outfielder who was watching the horror movie Wrong Turn with his fiancée, screamed when he saw the text message thread from his teammates that they had acquired Verlander. Jose Altuve, the American League MVP favorite, abruptly stopped eating dinner and cheered when his brother yelled out that they got Verlander. Collin McHugh was awakened from a deep sleep when his wife spilled the news.
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With the Astros coming off their worst month of the season and their city reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Verlander’s arrival from the Tigers was wildly celebrated from every corner of the organization.
“I tell you, man, it really made me feel special,” Verlander told USA TODAY Sports. “It makes you feel so embraced, seeing everybody, seeing how excited they were when I met them face-to-face.
“To hear and feel and see that emotion before I’m even here, man. It made me feel so much more comfortable coming into a scary situation, really. This is so unique, so different, a first-day-of-school feeling.”
And Tuesday night, in front of a group of friends and family totaling one — fiancée Kate Upton — Verlander will step onto the field and pitch his first game for his new employers, new teammates and new fan base, against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field.
“You know how hard it was for people to try to get here,” Verlander said, laughing. “This is the farthest I could have been. It’s just as well. It’s going to be so nerve-wracking. I know I’ll be so nervous.
“It’ll be like opening day. It really doesn’t matter if you win on opening day, but that game’s so nerve-wracking because it’s new.”
This will be the first chapter of the rest of Verlander’s life. He spent the first 13 years of his career in the Tigers organization; he’ll be with the Astros through at least 2019, when his contract expires.
Verlander was the 2011 American League MVP. He is a Cy Young Award winner (also in 2011), with four other top-five finishes, and a six-time All-Star. He has thrown two no-hitters. He has pitched in five postseasons, but never has he won a World Series.
He badly wants that to change, still haunted by all the near-misses with the Tigers.
This is why he’s wearing an Astros uniform today, having waived his no-trade clause instead of just waiting to see what might have developed in the offseason.
“Really, just a chance to win, that’s what it came down to,” said Verlander, 10-8, 3.82 ERA, who has been one of the league’s top pitchers since the All-Star break with a 2.41 ERA. “I know how good this team is. And we play the game to win.
“Look, there was a lot of comfort and everything staying in one place the entire time and creating a legacy. That’s something that meant a lot to me. But ultimately it was best for both sides when I really sat down and thought about it, and I think everybody understood that.
“The further removed I get from that decision and the more my emotions fade from saying goodbye to Detroit and the way I feel embraced by this city and my new teammates, it feels more and more like the right choice.
“Not that I ever felt it was the wrong choice, but it just validates it a little bit more.”
Really, Verlander says, he knew it was time to depart when the Tigers traded All-Star outfielder Justin Upton earlier Thursday to the Los Angeles Angels. They were worried that Upton would not opt out of his contract after the season, leaving $88.5 million on their books for the next four years. Once they dumped Upton, they wanted Verlander gone next, and he knew it.
“That really helped make my decision,” Verlander said of the Upton trade. “The Tigers had never really committed to a rebuild. They were going to continue to win while trying to trim payroll when they could.
“But once he was traded, it was like, ‘OK, this is a full rebuild.’”
So Verlander packed up his suitcases for Houston on Saturday, and when he headed to the ballpark for the Astros’ doubleheader, Upton went on a house-hunting tour with Whitney Crane, the wife of Astros owner Jim Crane. If they were going to make Houston their home, they didn’t want to stay in a hotel for the rest of the season.
Well, by the time the doubleheader ended, they had found a home, with the lease not expiring until the Astros’ season is over.
Not on Oct. 1 — the last day of the regular season.
The lease expires in November, after the World Series and parade is over.
“It’s crazy what’s going on here since he got here, and (outfielder) Cameron (Maybin), too,” Springer said. “These guys have really helped our energy. Our team is playing like our old style of baseball again, upbeat and aggressive.
“They’re bringing out the best in everybody.”
The feeling is mutual, Verlander says.
Why, in a matter of days, he picked up 35 1/2 games in the standings without picking up a baseball.
His new team, the first-place Astros, are still unbeaten since his arrival, beating the Mariners 6-2 in the series opener here Monday.
His old team, the fourth-place Tigers, have yet to win a game since his departure.
The Astros, who had lost 17 of 28 games in August, suddenly are looking like the powerhouse they were for the first four months of the season, fending off the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox for the best record in the American League.
“I know we had a rough August, and people wanted to identify with that’s who we were,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “But it’s a little bit of a short memory. The first four months, we were pretty dominant.
“We felt like we were going to be a good team, regardless, but he brings instant credibility to already a good team.”
It almost seemed too good to be true. This is a city that was convinced that Tony Romo was coming to its NFL team. It thought Carmelo Anthony was coming to its NBA team. It just didn’t seem possible that the best pitcher on the market would be coming, particularly after the July 31 non-waiver deadline.
“We thought it wasn’t going to happen, that it was old news,” Altuve said. “And when we did, I couldn’t believe it. We had a day off the next day, and I wanted to play so bad. I was so excited.
“This team was good before him, but now we’re even better. Everybody knows what he’s capable of doing, and he’s already brought so much energy to the clubhouse.
“It’s still hard to believe. We did it. We got Justin Verlander. Wow!
“Man, do I feel so much better now.”
Verlander’s Astros debut comes on the same day Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says his city will again be “open for business,” even as more than 50,000 evacuees remain in shelters or FEMA-sponsored accommodations. The team’s postseason run will unfold as a backdrop to the Harvey recovery.
For Verlander, all of it is new. So, too, would be a World Series championship — for him and the city.
“It’s going to be scary,” Verlander said. “But I really can’t wait.”
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