By KRISTIE RIEKEN
AP Sports Writer
HOUSTON (AP) — When Justin Verlander takes the mound for the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the AL Division Series on Tuesday against the Seattle Mariners, it will have been almost three years since his last playoff appearance.
Verlander, who missed almost two seasons after Tommy John surgery, will look to build on his remarkable comeback season when he leads Houston into the postseason in the opener of the best-of-five series.
“This crowd here’s always great, especially in the playoffs,” Verlander said. “So hopefully we can feed off that, and just try to continue to pitch like I have all season.”
Verlander’s last postseason appearance came on Oct. 29, 2019, when he allowed five hits and three runs in five innings of a loss to Washington in Game 6 of the World Series. Tuesday will be his 31st playoff start and 32nd appearance in his 20th playoff series.
“Unbelievable Hall of Fame-type career, on top of his game, maybe better than he’s ever been most recently,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “We certainly have seen him a lot through the years, and he’s not slowing down, unfortunately for us.”
The 39-year-old Verlander led the AL with 18 wins, and his MLB-leading 1.75 ERA is the lowest for an AL qualified pitcher in a full season since Pedro Martinez’s 1.74 ERA in 2000.
The two-time Cy Young Award winner’s ERA also was the lowest of his career, besting his 2.40 ERA in 2011, when he won his first Cy Young and was also voted AL MVP while with Detroit.
Verlander, who also won a Cy Young in 2019, is a top candidate to win the award for a third time this season after returning to form following his injury.
Veteran second baseman Jose Altuve said Verlander’s return gives the Astros a boost as they try to return to the World Series for the fourth time in six seasons and reach their sixth consecutive ALCS.
“He’s just amazing the way he pitched, the way he came back from injury,” Altuve said. “He’s the right guy to have out there in Game 1… (and) we all know he’s going to go out there and be him.”
Verlander was great against the Mariners in the regular season, going 5-1 with a 2.34 ERA in six starts. He believes this series will be interesting because the AL West foes know each other so “intimately.”
Houston had the advantage in the regular season, winning 12 of 19 games.
The Mariners advanced to the ALDS after rallying from a seven-run deficit in Game 2 of the wild-card round to sweep the Blue Jays. That victory was the biggest road comeback win in playoff history and baseball’s largest comeback victory to clinch a postseason series.
“Their lineup is really good,” Verlander said. “They never give in, as you saw in the series against Toronto. They grind out at-bats. They don’t make it easy.”
The Mariners will counter with Logan Gilbert, who will make his first postseason start, as they continue their first playoff run since 2001 with ace Luis Castillo unavailable after starting the first game of the wild-card series on Friday.
Gilbert was solid against the Astros in four starts this season, going 2-1 with a 2.52 ERA.
“I’ve watched these games since I was little,” Gilbert said. “I grew up dreaming about playing in these games and now we are here.”
Seattle center fielder Julio Rodríguez is off to a slow start in the postseason after a dazzling regular season that made him the frontrunner for AL Rookie of the Year.
Rodríguez hit .284 with 28 homers and 25 stolen bases in the regular season, but has just one hit in the playoffs.
He was hit twice, singled and scored two runs in Game 1 against Toronto before going 0 for 4 in the second game. The 21-year-old hasn’t had much success against the Astros, hitting .218 with two homers, two doubles, six RBIs and 19 strikeouts in 15 games.
Servais is confident that Rodríguez will make an impact this October because of the strides he’s made throughout this season.
“His ability to make adjustments in game is outstanding,” Servais said. “He understands what they’re doing to him in the batter’s box and how he needs to maybe make an adjustment to get the result he’s looking for. But above and beyond that is his preparation and his routine when he gets to the ballpark every day.”
FILLING CORREA’S SHOES
With Houston playoff staple shortstop Carlos Correa gone to Minnesota in free agency, the Astros will look to rookie Jeremy Peña to continue his strong season in the postseason.
Peña hit .289 with 22 homers and 63 RBIs this season after taking over for Correa, who starred at shortstop in Houston for the previous seven years. Correa embraced the spotlight perhaps more than any Astro in recent history, piling up 18 homers and 59 RBIs in 79 career playoff games.
Though Peña understands that comparisons will be made, he’s focused on being himself and not concerned about trying to fill Correa’s shoes.
“It’s never been about that,” he said. “It’s just been about me making a dream come true. This is something I’ve been working for my whole life.”
Altuve has been impressed with Peña’s development this season and believes he’s ready for the bright lights of the playoffs.
“He wants more,” Altuve said. “He wants to learn. He wants to get better. For me, that’s all that matters. I know he’s going to go out there and give everything he has and he’s going to help us to win some games.”
Catcher Cal Raleigh has led the Mariners to several big wins in the last two weeks.
It was his walk-off homer with two outs in the ninth inning that propelled them to a 2-1 win over Oakland on Sept. 30 to clinch a postseason berth.
He kept his hot hitting going in Game 1 against Toronto with a home run. He added another big hit when he doubled in the ninth inning and scored the winning run in Game 2 to cap Seattle’s huge comeback.
Raleigh’s recent success has come despite his playing through an injury to his left thumb.
THEY SAID IT
Houston manager Dusty Baker on how the Astros’ six-day layoff since their last regular-season game will affect them: “We don’t know if (there will be) rust being off that long, we won’t know until we get into it.”
Seattle second baseman Adam Frazier hopes Houston’s layoff benefits his team.
“They have been sitting at home for a week, so I’m sure they’re feeling fresh, but at the same time, timing may be a little off,” he said. “So hoping for that and we’ll see how it goes.”
Neither team has announced a starter for Game 2 on Thursday. But it’s likely to be Castillo against Houston’s Framber Valdez, who was second in the AL with a career-high 17 wins.
AP Sports Writer Tim Booth contributed to this story.
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