Justin Verlander goes 5 scoreless innings in win over Nationals

WASHINGTON — Astros pitcher Justin Verlander reared back and let fly a 98.3 mph fastball in the first inning Sunday, which reminded him he can still bring the gas at 39 years old. He was told it might take him a little while to get his velocity back following Tommy John surgery, but seeing was believing.

“It just didn’t magically reappear,” Verlander said Sunday after throwing five scoreless innings in the Astros’ 8-0 win at Nationals Park. “So it’s nice to see it’s creeping up. Ideally, it stays there. That would be great.”

Verlander keeps checking more boxes in his return from having the ulnar collateral ligament replaced in his right elbow late in 2020. Not only did he throw his hardest pitch of the season Sunday — his previous hardest was 96.7 mph — but he threw 107 pitches , which is the most he’s thrown since tossing 120 in his no-hitter on Sept. 1, 2019 against the Blue Jays.

And he did it all while throwing on four days of rest for the first time this year. He had been pitching on five and six days of rest, but he was glad to get back on his normal routine. Verlander combined with three relievers Sunday on a four-hitter that was Houston’s sixth shutout in its past 13 games, 12 of which the Astros have won.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if [my elbow] gets a little sore, just kind of like the first time really being stressed like that,” Verlander said. “Not only just number of pitches, but the type of pitches under stressful situations and also, I don’t think I’ve thrown 97 [mph] this year. Two mph harder is a couple of percent gain. That could also have a reaction. Who knows? I know the last couple of starts, it’s been bouncing back pretty well. I was very pleased with how I felt coming into the start and today and hopefully, it just continues to do that.”

Through seven starts, Verlander is 5-1 with a 1.38 ERA, .147 opponents’ batting average and 0.68 WHIP. He’s allowed 22 hits and walked nine batters in 45 2/3 innings and has 13 consecutive scoreless innings under his belt.

“He throws 97, but it doesn’t really look like the ball’s 97, and that’s a testament to what he does and how he perceives and how he works on his mechanics,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “I thought we were going to get him, because we were getting the pitches up [in the zone]but then he comes back and throws two good changeups, a slider, a curveball, and they were just really good pitches.”

Verlander, who took a no-hitter into the eighth in his previous start, needed 28 pitches to escape a first inning in which he walked two of the first three batters of the game. He wound up striking out Nelson Cruz and Yadiel Hernandez to escape the jam and didn’t allow a hit until back-to-back one-out singles in the fifth.

“We had our horse on the mound,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “He wasn’t real sharp early and rarely do you see 30 pitches in that first inning. We were just hoping we didn’t have to go through our whole bullpen. He did a great job and battled and battled.”

Verlander threw 55 fastballs, averaging 95.2 mph, which was up nearly one mph from his season average, and tied a season high with 17 swings and misses. His slider averaged 88 mph (up 1.2 mph) and his curveball was 79.3 mph (up 1.4 mph). He even threw five changeups, including four to Juan Soto. That was the final pitch he threw in the game, getting Soto to ground out to first and strand two runners in the fifth.

“It was big for me,” Verlander said of the changeup. “I’ve been really trying hard to work on it and maybe found a little something in between my last start and this one, and I wasn’t afraid to bring it in the game and try it, and I had some good results with it.”

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