Justin Verlander can build on legacy as Astros, Phillies open World Series

Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports
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HOUSTON – If there is a blemish on the stellar resume of Houston Astros right-hander Justin Verlander, it is this: In seven career World Series starts with two franchises, Verlander is 0-6 with a 5.68 ERA.

That mark seems incongruous with everything Verlander has accomplished. He is a surefire Hall of Famer and arguably the best pitcher of his generation, yet success in the post-season has eluded him.

Verlander will make his eighth World Series start on Friday when the Astros face the visiting Philadelphia Phillies for Game 1.

“I would like to get a win, yeah,” Verlander said. “(But) like I said, that’s not my goal, so I don’t want to say that that feels like it’s lacking because innately that would make it a particular goal of mine.

“My goal is to go out and give us the best chance to win. If that ends up resulting in a win, great. I’ve been a part of games that I pitched and started that we won in the World Series, which is more important than getting the win.”

The Astros won both series openers in the American League Division Series and AL Championship Series despite mixed results from Verlander. He allowed six runs on 10 hits — a career postseason high — over four innings in the Astros’ 8-7 walk-off victory over the Seattle Mariners on Oct. 11. Eight days later, Verlander pitched exceptionally well against the New York Yankees, staking Houston to a 1-0 series lead by recording 11 strikeouts over six innings.

Verlander, the AL Cy Young Award favorite after missing most of the past two seasons following elbow surgery, remains the ace of a staff that has surrendered just 15 earned runs in 72 innings across seven postseason games.

His presence was sorely missed when the Astros lost in seven games to the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2020 ALCS and in six to the Atlanta Braves in the 2021 World Series. No matter his past record, the expectation is for Verlander to be brilliant.

“He’s had an unbelievable career,” Phillies manager Rob Thomson said. “To do what he’s doing at his age (39) and how many seasons he’s had, how many games he’s pitched, it’s incredible.

“It’s the big fastball, it’s the big curveball, it’s the poise he has on the mound and the competitive nature that he has that has kept him going. I know he’s on the other club, but I have a ton of respect for just what he’s done in his career.”

Phillies right-hander Aaron Nola (2-1, 3.12 ERA this postseason) will start opposite Verlander (1-0, 6.30 this postseason), armed with a positive memory from his last appearance at Minute Maid Park.

Nola was the pitcher of record when Philadelphia defeated the Astros 3-0 on Oct. 3, a victory that cemented the Phillies’ first postseason berth in 11 years. Nola was outstanding that evening, limiting the Astros to two hits while recording nine strikeouts and no walks over 6 2/3 innings.

For all the ballyhoo over the Phillies’ powerful lineup — featuring Bryce Harper and Rhys Hoskins, who are tied for the postseason lead in home runs (five) and RBIs (11) — the duo of Nola and Zack Wheeler provides Philadelphia more than a puncher’s chance of stealing a game or two in Houston.

“I guess I’ll find out,” Nola said when asked if his previous start in Houston might prove advantageous. “But it’s nice to be able to pitch on this mound for the first time the last time we were here, just to kind of get a feel for it and know how it holds up. So I think that’s an advantage to that part.

“Obviously, it’s a different stage of the last time we played here. It’s a good team that we’re playing against, and we are too, so I think we’ll see (Friday) and we’ll see this series.”

The Phillies have hit 16 home runs this postseason, leading all teams. Houston is not far behind at 12 while playing just seven games to Philadelphia’s 11. Rookie shortstop Jeremy Pena, in his first season playing in Carlos Correa‘s old spot, is guiding the Astros’ lineup these playoffs with 10 hits, seven runs and three homers.

Phillies select active duty Navy aviator in MLB Rule 5 draft

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SAN DIEGO — The Philadelphia Phillies took U.S. Navy aviator Noah Song in the Rule 5 draft Wednesday, hoping the former top pitching prospect can still be effective once he completes his military service.

There is no definitive date on when the 25-year-old Song might be able to join the Phillies.

Song was picked from the Boston Red Sox system in the draft for unprotected minor league players. Philadelphia put him on the military list while he continues his active duty and he won’t count on the 40-man roster, the pool from which major league teams can select players for the 26-man active roster.

Song impressed in his only pro season, making seven starts for Boston’s Class A Lowell affiliate in 2019, with a 1.06 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 17 innings. With a fastball clocked in the upper 90s mph, the right-hander dominated that year as a senior at the U.S. Naval Academy, going 11-1 with a 1.44 ERA and 161 strikeouts in 94 innings.

The Red Sox drafted Song in the fourth round – he likely would’ve gone much higher, but his impending military service caused teams to back off.

In November 2019, Defense Secretary Mark Esper signed a memo clearing the way for athletes at the nation’s military academies to delay their service commitments and play pro sports after graduation. Song’s request to have those new rules retroactively applied to his case was denied.

Song began school as a flight officer in the summer of 2020 and finished that phase last April. He started additional aviation training in May.

Song was among the 15 players, including three Boston pitchers, taken in the big league phase of the Rule 5 draft, which wasn’t held last year because of the MLB lockout.

Washington took righty Thad Ward from Boston’s Triple-A roster with the first pick. Baltimore took Red Sox minor league pitcher Andrew Politi with the ninth choice and the Phillies chose Song with the 11th selection.

Teams pay $100,000 to take players in the major league portion of the Rule 5 draft. The players must stay on the big league roster next season or go on waivers and, if unclaimed, be offered back to their original organization for $50,000.