Justin Verlander’s still got it. The 36-year-old Houston Astros starter flexed his muscles once again on Tuesday night, striking out 13 Cleveland Indians over seven innings of scoreless two-hit ball as his team picked up its 10th win in the past 12 games. It was the Astros’ fourth straight win with Verlander on the mound, JV’s second straight game allowing zero earned runs, and his third straight game with double-digit strikeouts. It’s been one of the strange quirks of his career that Verlander has normally been a safe bet to self-destruct in Cleveland, and even after Tuesday’s dominant outing his career ERA in 29 starts there is an uncharacteristic 5.34. But the steep drop on Verlander’s breaking pitches just baffled everyone that tried and failed to touch him last night.
Despite an abnormally high home run rate this season, Verlander’s prime is lasting longer than anyone might have expected. After his win on Tuesday, Verlander credited the king of pitching longevity with the assist on his performance. Nolan Ryan, an executive assistant with the Astros, talked to Verlander earlier in July about how he aged gracefully as a pitcher, noting that he relied less on his fastball and more on his secondary pitches as he got older.
“He had some really good insights on some stuff that I hadn’t really thought of,” said Verlander, who’s working a new changeup into his arsenal. “And I took it out there and pretty much right away started having some better results.”
Verlander and his league-leading 0.81 WHIP is only one piece of what is currently a very scary Astros pitching staff. Houston’s 1,099 strikeouts—10.17 per nine innings—is best in the league, and their team ERA of 3.73 is behind only the Dodgers and Rays. More than even Verlander, 28-year-old Gerrit Cole has shut down opposing bats to the tune of 13.28 K/9. It’s the second straight transcendent season for Cole, who has allowed just one earned in each of his last three starts, with 29 Ks in 21 innings. Cole is creating whiffs at a near-record pace—only Randy Johnson hit 200 Ks in fewer innings than it took Cole in 2019—and he’s doing it with a 97 mph fastball that puts him among the top tier of flamethrowing starters.
Maybe with surprise AL success stories like the Rays and the Twins—not to mention the Yankees’ eye-catching offensive prowess—Houston’s 69-39 record has been taken for granted. Maybe it’s the fact that they’ve been this good for a few years now, and fans have come to expect it. But the Astros are really good, and the 1-2 punch of Verlander and Cole is mightier than any other starting pitching duo in the AL. Tack on the eighth and ninth inning abilities of a healthy Ryan Pressly and Roberto Osuna and the ’Stros look ready to stifle the intimidating bats of their future postseason opponents.
Update (4:17 p.m. ET): Also they have Zack Greinke now.