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Astros gamble on Justin Verlander pays off in a big way after excellent Game 2 start

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Weeks before the trade deadline, some considered Justin Verlander unmovable. The 34-year-old had an uncharacteristic 4.73 ERA in the first half with declining peripherals. Considering his age, the mileage on his arm and the $56 million owed to him over the next two years, it seemed like any team looking to acquire Verlander was taking on a big risk.

Minutes before the trade deadline expired the Houston Astros decided to take that gamble. During Game 2 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday, Verlander proved he’s still got plenty left in the tank.

Verlander was masterful, going the distance while striking out 13 New York Yankees in the complete game victory. Over nine innings, Verlander dominated the powerful Yankees lineup. He allowed just one run on five hits, with one walk during the outing. He was so impressive that, despite throwing 124 pitches, you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking Verlander would have come out for the 10th inning.

It nearly came to that. Luis Severinoprior to his abrupt exit — combined with the Yankees bullpen to turn in an equally impressive effort during the contest, limiting the Astros to just one run, which came on a controversial homer, over eight innings.

The team was in danger of wasting the excellent start by Verlander until Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa struck. With one out in the bottom of the ninth, Altuve singled off Aroldis Chapman. Six pitches later, he slid safety into home plate on a Correa double. Verlander received the 2-1 walk-off win, and the Astros took an impressive 2-0 lead in the ALCS.

Perhaps Verlander’s start shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Over his career, he’s been known to step up his game in the postseason.

That’s far too simple an explanation, though. Anyone who has watched Verlander with the Astros noticed he’s been a radically different pitcher with the club. Something clicked with the trade. Upon reaching the Astros, Verlander’s strikeout rate shot up to 35.8 percent, over 10 percent higher than it was with the Detroit Tigers in the first half. His walk rate dropped by five percent. In five starts, Verlander posted a 1.06 ERA. That’s not a huge sample, but it was one of the best stretches of Verlander’s career.

One of the major keys to Verlander’s rebound was his slider. The resurgent pitch was on full display Saturday, as he racked up nine of his 13 strikeouts with it. Not bad for a pitcher who looked to be in serious decline a few months ago.

While there were legitimate reasons to worry about Verlander during the first half, perhaps we should have seen this coming. It’s not the first time in his career Verlander has been able to bounce back after being counted out.

Justin Verlander turned back the clock with a vintage start during Game 2 of the ALCS. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

After posting an uncharacteristic 4.74 ERA in 2014 and following that up with an injury-riddled 2015, many figured his time as an elite pitcher had ended. The signs were there. His strikeout rate was declining. His trademark fastball had lost some of its oomph. And that right arm had tossed a lot of innings over the first nine years of his career.

Pitchers burn out. It happens. Plenty of players with Verlander’s track record had their primes cut short with similar warning signs.

The concern proved to be premature. Verlander turned in a resurgent 2016. His body was healthy. His fastball was back. And he had a legitimate case for the Cy Young award.

Verlander already proved the doubters wrong with his 2016 come back. Anyone who predicted gloom and doom again after his tough first half, was fooled for a second time following Saturday’s tremendous performance … and you know how that saying goes.

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Chris Cwik is a writer for Big League Stew on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at christophercwik@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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