LOS ANGELES — It was three months ago when Justin Verlander was informed by his Detroit Tigers’ bosses that he likely would be traded, and considering he had a full no-trade clause, he didn’t hesitate to say where he wanted to go.
He wanted to play for the Dodgers.
It would be perfect. This is where he lives in the off-season, in Beverly Hills, with his fiancée, model Kate Upton. He’d be close to Dodger Stadium. He’d be playing on a great team. He’d be performing in one of the best pitcher’s ballparks in the majors.
Maybe, if everything fell in place, he could be on the mound in Game 6 of the World Series, pitching the Dodgers to their first World Series title since 1988, resurrecting memories of Orel Hershiser.
Well, there’s one little problem.
Verlander indeed will be on the mound Tuesday night (8:21 p.m. ET, FOX), in Game 6 of this mesmerizing World Series, but he’ll be wearing orange and blue, pitching for the Houston Astros.
Verlander could be the Dodgers’ absolute worst nightmare, ending their dreams, and leaving them tormented throughout the winter, knowing how easily he could have been one of theirs.
The Tigers would have loved to trade Verlander to the Dodgers, given the Dodgers’ financial resources and pool of prospects, but there was one problem.
The Dodgers didn’t want him.
Oh, they made a couple of cursory phone calls in July, but they didn’t want to take on the remaining $56 million of his salary, let alone cough up prized prospects.
They instead opted for Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, the same guy who lasted just 1⅔ innings, giving up six hits and four runs, in the Dodgers’ 5-3 defeat in Game 3.
The Dodgers had a second crack at Verlander before the Aug. 31 deadline, too, but like the 29 other teams, they didn’t bother to claim him on waivers. They sat back and watched the Tigers work out a deal with the Astros with less than 15 seconds to spare before the Aug. 31 playoff eligibility.
Now, here is Verlander, staring at them 60 feet, 6 inches away, with the chance for the ultimate revenge.
“You don’t want me? Well, you got me now? I’m your worst nightmare.’’
Verlander, who is 4-0 with a 2.05 ERA in four starts and a relief appearance this postseason, and 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA since being traded to Houston, isn’t about to say anything derogatory now, certainly not on the eve of the biggest game of his life, but he’s got pride. He has an ego. He was hurt that the Dodgers didn’t think enough of him to trade for him.
Why, even at the Aug. 31 deadline, when the Tigers asked him if he’d accept a trade to the Astros, he was told that even if he waited until the winter, the Dodgers showed no inclination to change their mind.
So he accepted the deal, packed his bags for Houston, and here he is in Los Angeles, after all, only on the brink of bringing the first World Series championship to Houston.
“These are the moments,’’ Verlander said, “that you want to be a part of as a baseball player. It's everything you could ask for. It's going to be pretty intense.’’
Verlander has been to the World Series twice before in his career, pitching three times, but each time coming away empty.
Now, after all of these years, he’s got his chance.
“He’s been that guy that’s wanted the ball for this occasion for a long time,” former Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “He’s always been one of those guys that you can count on to step up.”
Now, one more step, and he’s on top of the world, and there’s not a soul in this world, the Astros say, they’d rather have on the mound.
“This is what we wanted,’’ Astros co-ace Dallas Keuchel said, “having Verlander on the mound. He’s been the best pitcher in the second half of anyone. There’s not a better guy we could have for Game 6. He lives for these moments.’’
Now, it’s as if Verlander has spent his entire career in Houston, nearly reaching Nolan Ryan heights in popularity, and on the verge of taking this team to where they’ve never gone before.
This is Verlander’s team as much as anyone’s, and he accepts the responsibility that comes along with it. It was Verlander who was pulled aside that first week of September by Astros manager A.J. Hinch.
He asked Verlander how the team should handle it when they clinched a playoff berth before winning the division title. A champagne toast? A wild party? Just a few hugs and handshakes?
Verlander had been with the Astros all of two days.
“They showed me that kind of respect right away,’’ Verlander said. “It kind of blew me away. I’ll never forget that.’’
Now, he hopes to repay everyone with an evening no one in Houston will ever forget. He plans to take the ball, go deep into the game, and may even go old-school by throwing a complete game, with no need for bullpen phone to ever ring.
“I’ve waited my whole life for this,’’ Verlander said. “It’s everything I always wanted. You dream of a night like this.’’
A dream that could become the Dodgers’ worst nightmare.
© 2018 USATODAY.COM