WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Watching Houston’s run through the 2021 playoffs, Justin Verlander considered lending a hand – an arm, actually – to the cause.
The two-time AL Cy Young Award winner had pitched in only one game since 2019, but his bullpen sessions while rehabbing from Tommy John surgery were going so well that he felt could get major league hitters out.
“My doctor put it very bluntly,” Verlander said. “If you want to go out in a blaze of glory and maybe blow yourself out, by all means go pitch in the World Series. But if you want to pitch a few more years like you’ve told me you want to, then you’d be an idiot to do that.”
Verlander’s return to an Astros uniform ultimately waited until Sunday – and it occurred on the back fields at the Astros’ complex at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches during Houston’s first official day of spring workouts.
The 2011 AL MVP threw about 40 pitches in two simulated innings. He threw his fastball and controlled an array of off-speed pitches as hitters – mostly minor leaguers, but Michael Brantley did step in – stood in the batter’s box.
“I’m on cloud nine,” Verlander said.
Verlander said he’s “a hair behind” where he’d normally be this close to opening day, but that’s intentional.
Verlander applied a lesson he learned in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic ended spring training about 10 days prior to opening day. When the regular season finally started in July, Verlander pitched in only one game before being shut down.
“The last thing I wanted to do was build up, then pull back, and then build up again,” Verlander said.
Not knowing when the lockout would end, Verlander didn’t push his recent workload.
“I expected the lockout to go a little longer,” Verlander said.
Verlander, manager Dusty Baker and Houston general manager James Click all said Sunday that they haven’t established a spring or regular-season workload expectation for Verlander.
The right-hander is going to, essentially, play it by feel, allowing his 16 years as a major leaguer to guide his workload.
“I know the difference between typical soreness and what I can and cannot work through better than anybody because I’ve done it,” Verlander said.
At 39 years old, Verlander is one of the oldest pitchers to ever attempt a return from Tommy John surgery.
“I think I’m kind of a case study on this one,” Verlander said.
Baker, a veteran manager and longtime player, is well-versed in managing pitchers coming off the operation.
“We’re going to try to figure out how to keep him healthy, how much his workload is – this new and improved Verlander versus the excellent Verlander of the past,” Baker said. “Also, I was there when Orel Hershiser had his Tommy John, and how good he was after Tommy John. And I was actually there with the real Tommy John.”
Verlander’s return to the Astros wasn’t a certainty. A free agent following the 2021 season, Verlander declined Houston’s qualifying offer before electing to re-sign with Houston on a two-year deal.
“When it came down to it, Houston was our No. 1 choice, as long as they were willing and able to be in the arena of the other teams we were negotiating with,” Verlander said. “They came through.”
NOTES: Former Miami Marlins outfielder Lewis Brinson agreed to a minor league contract with Houston that includes a major league camp invite.