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Verlander sharp in 1st start since 2020, heater hits 96 mph

Verlander threw 18 of 31 pitches for strikes, and his fastball cruised between 94-96 mph.
Credit: AP
Houston Astros Justin Verlander pitches in the second inning of a spring training baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Friday, March 18, 2022, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

JUPITER, Florida — Trying to shut down big league hitters for the first time in 20 months, Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander quickly got up to speed.

Verlander kept his fastball in the 95 mph range, breezing through two hitless innings against St. Louis in the Astros' spring training opener Friday. He struck out Paul Goldschmidt and Paul DeJong swinging and walked one.

The 39-year-old righty hadn't pitched in a game since July 2020 — that was his first start of the pandemic-shortened season, and he then underwent Tommy John surgery. He missed all of 2021 when the Astros reached the World Series.

“It felt good to be back out there,” Verlander said. “I was a able to get through a couple innings. Body felt good. Arm felt good. I think those are the most important boxes to check."

“I was a little inconsistent with my stuff, but for the most part I was able to make some pitches when I needed to. Hopefully the timing and consistency just comes with more reps,” he said.

Verlander threw 18 of 31 pitches for strikes, and his fastball cruised between 94-96 mph.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner said he thinks he can return to that top form.

“Is it realistic? Yeah, of course it is,” he said. “I’ve put in so, so, so much work — the stuff that nobody sees, I’m not posting about. Just the daily grind, hours on end, I wouldn’t do that if I didn’t think I could come back and be great. It wouldn’t be worth it.”

Verlander won his most recent Cy Young in 2019 and manager Dusty Baker can envision seeing the version of the longtime star.

“It’s just a matter of endurance,” Baker said. “It’s a long season.”

Seven of the nine Cardinals who started on Friday will likely be in their opening day batting order, making Verlander’s results even more impressive.

“It felt good to be able get those guys out,” Verlander said. “I think you really want to test yourself against the best.”

Verlander sensed a little extra energy warming up for the game than he had in recent months prior to bullpen sessions or live batting practice. But once on the mound, he didn’t feel all that different than any other first start of past springs.

Friday’s start marked the first time he pitched in front of fans since 2019. COVID-19 protocols barred attendance in his lone 2020 outing.

“The thing I felt best about was the fans,” Verlander said. “I’m being honest. You hear the crowd and it was like, man this is where I’m supposed to be. This is what all the hard work is for. I felt great.”

While the Cardinals fielded a representative lineup, the same can’t be said for the Astros. Baker doesn’t intend to insert starting position players into the lineup until Tuesday’s game against the Mets in Port St. Lucie.

Verlander hopes that, by then, the Astros will have re-signed free agent shortstop Carlos Correa.

“I know that we would be a much better ballclub with him here,” Verlander said. “Of course we want to have the best free agent on the market.”

Adam Wainwright, 40, started for the Cardinals, allowing an earned run on two hits while striking out one in two innings. St. Louis defeated Houston 4-2.

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