PHILADELPHIA – Justin Verlander beamed like a first-time big leaguer, and the Houston Astros feted the 244-game winner like a baby-faced rookie.
“They put me in the cart and rolled me in the shower and just doused me with all sorts of stuff," he said. "And it was one of the best feelings in my career.”
After 16 years of trying, Verlander finally gritted out his elusive first World Series win.
Expected to win his third Cy Young Award this month, Verlander overcame an early jolt and rookie Jeremy Peña hit a go-ahead homer and drove in two runs as the Astros beat the Philadelphia Phillies 3-2 Thursday night to head home with a 3-2 Series lead.
“I can say I got one,” Verlander proudly proclaimed.
Buoyed by defensive gems from Trey Mancini in the eighth inning and Chas McCormick in the ninth, the Astros moved to the brink of their second championship — the other was a scandal-tainted title in 2017. They can close out the Phillies on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park.
“There’s going to be a lot of energy in our park,” said Houston's 73-year-old Dusty Baker, one win from his first title in 25 seasons as a major league manager.
Philadelphia, wearing vintage powder blue uniforms in the Series for the first time since 1983, lost consecutive games for the first time this postseason.
Of previous Fall Classics tied 2-2, the Game 5 victor has won 31 of 47 times. Three years ago, the Astros lost Games 6 and 7 at home to Washington.
“I think it matters that we’ve already won there this series,” the Phillies' Rhys Hoskins said. “Should give us a little more confidence.”
Verlander is among just five Astros remaining from the team caught using video to steal signs in ’17. He had been 0-6 with an unseemly 6.07 ERA in eight Series starts dating to his rookie season with Detroit in 2006, a blotch in a likely Hall of Fame career.
Pitching with an extra day of rest for his arm and stubble on his face, the 39-year-old right-hander gave up just one run and four hits over five innings with four walks and six strikeouts. He lowered that Series ERA to 5.63, a celebratory cap on a season in which he returned from Tommy John surgery and re-emerged as the AL's best starter.
Houston went ahead just four pitches in against Noah Syndergaard on Peña's run-scoring single. Then Kyle Schwarber hit his fifth postseason homer leading off the bottom half, harkening to the five-run lead Verlander wasted in Houston’s opening 6-5, 10-inning loss.
“It just sucks because of the moment and obviously all the questions and weight,” Verlander said. “But you have to rely on the hundreds of starts and the thousands of pitches I’ve thrown before and just kind of say, ‘OK, I’ve given up leadoff home runs before. Let me bear down.’"
Philadelphia loaded the bases in the second on Jean Segura’s single and a pair of walks. After a visit from pitching coach Bill Murphy, Verlander wiggled out of trouble by striking out Hoskins on a slider.
“It was kind of a tricky thing because my first start, my slider and curveball was what I got hurt on most,” Verlander said. “Once we started leaning on them a little bit, it was almost like testing the water, sticking your foot in the pool and seeing how cold it is.”
Verlander threw exclusively fastballs in 17 pitches to Bryce Harper, who doubled with two outs in the fifth. Baker left in Verlander to face Nick Castellanos.
“He’s been one of the best of getting out of trouble and, to me, that was his game,” Baker said. “Who can you bring in that’s better than the guy that’s out there?”
Castellanos, whose single off a slider started Verlander's Game 1 downfall, followed with an epic 10-pitch at-bat. After trying two fastballs, two curveballs and his only changeup of the night, Verlander threw his fifth slider of the plate appearance and retired Castellanos on a flyout to short left, pumping a fist twice in excitement.
“It’s a game of centimeters," Castellanos said. “If I’m on top of that ball a little bit more, we’re in a different situation.”
Peña had three hits: an RBI single through a drawn-in infield in the first after Jose Altuve's leadoff double, a homer in the fourth on a hanging curveball (his fourth longball of the posteason) for a 2-1 lead and an eighth-inning single that set up Yordan Alvarez’s run-scoring groundout. The shortstop also made a leaping catch to foil Castellanos in the third.
After Segura's one-out RBI single off Rafael Montero in the eighth, Ryan Pressly escaped a first-and-third jam by striking out Brandon Marsh and retiring Schwarber on a nearly 100 mph one-hopper that was snagged over first base by Mancini.
Mancini, the backup first baseman, pinch hit in the top half after 2021 Gold Glove winner Yuli Gurriel hurt his right knee in a collision during a rundown. Playing defense for the first time since the regular-season finale, Mancini fell into foul territory and reached back with his left foot to touch the bag.
"I just tackled it basically,” Mancini said.
McCormick, who grew up a Phillies fan in the Philadelphia suburbs, helped Pressly finish a five-out save. The center fielder ran 91 feet to make a leaping backhand catch against the chain-link fence in front of the right-center scoreboard on J.T. Realmuto for the second out of the ninth.
“I was going to run through a wall and catch it no matter what,” McCormick said.
After Harper was hit by a pitch, Castellanos bounced to shortstop, ending a 3-hour, 57-minute thriller.
“Zero complacency,” Verlander said. “We’ve been in this situation before. You can see how quickly momentum can change in this game.”
This was the third game in November, marking the first time a majority of the Series was played in that month.
Houston LHP Framber Valdez is set to face Phillies RHP Zack Wheeler. Valdez allowed one run, four hits and three walks over 6 1/3 innings in Game 2, while Wheeler gave up five runs — four earned — and three walks over five innings, including Alex Bregman’s two-run homer.
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