The Astros’ hopes for a second World Series championship suffered a devastating blow Sunday. Their ace is gone, and without him, their pitching staff seems in ruins.
Reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander will miss the rest of the season because of an elbow injury, according to two people with knowledge of the situation.
Astros' Justin Verlander out for season with injury
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Manager Dusty Baker said Verlander was diagnosed with a forearm strain and will be shut down for “a couple weeks” but declined to confirm or deny an initial report by the Chronicle that his top starting pitcher will be out for the season.
Verlander, who was not at Minute Maid Park for the Astros’ 7-6 loss to the Seattle Mariners, posted on Twitter: “The report that I’m currently missing the rest of the season is not accurate. There is a forearm strain … I’m hopeful that with some rest it will heal and I’ll be able to return soon.”
Astros' Justin Verlander out for season with injury
Said Baker: “It’s a forearm strain, and he’s shut down for a couple weeks, and we’ll reevaluate at that time,” Baker said. “That’s all I can tell you.”
Astros general manager James Click declined comment.
Fifty-seven games remain in the Astros’ 60-game, pandemic-shortened season. The Astros announced Sunday that Verlander will not throw a baseball for two weeks, after which he’ll ostensibly be “reevaluated.”
Starting pitchers shut down for that long, especially those in the age range of Verlander, 37, often require a prolonged throwing program to build back up and ensure no lingering discomfort exists.
Whether they’re even ready to throw after that shutdown period — or whether they’d need further arm care before picking up a baseball — is an uncertainty. If Verlander does resume throwing after the two-week shutdown, it might not initially be off a mound. The process is quite slow.
“Forearm strain” is often a team’s descriptor for elbow-related problems. The two body parts share the same bone. The Astros described pitcher Lance McCullers Jr.’s injury in August 2018 as a “forearm strain.” He underwent reconstructive Tommy John surgery on his elbow that November.
Verlander underwent an MRI on Saturday, Baker said. The pitcher’s initial pain occurred during his season-opening start against the Mariners on Friday.
According to Baker, Verlander told the team his arm was “a little tender.” Verlander threw six innings of two-run baseball, totaling just 73 pitches. The low pitch count was not alarming given the team’s truncated summer camp ramp-up. Though there have been exceptions, most starting pitchers across MLB have been operating on a reduced pitch count in the season’s early going.
“He wanted to go some more,” Baker said Sunday. “He was throwing the ball well. He came over and said, ‘Hey, man, my arm is a little tender.’ That’s when we took him out.
“You see he was throwing the ball great. It was kind of a shock to all of us.”
Verlander underwent groin surgery in March. He also suffered a lat injury in spring training, which led to his aggravating the groin during his rehabilitation. The four-month shutdown afforded him time to get healthy and overhaul his mechanics. He made the changes to pitch “eight to 10 more years,” he said, an attempt to fulfill his long-held goal to pitch until he’s 45.
Since becoming an Astro three Augusts ago, Verlander has authored a career renaissance. He was the Most Valuable Player of the 2017 American League Championship Series and finished runner-up for the 2018 American League Cy Young Award. He won the trophy last season, one in which he struck out 300 batters for the first time and threw his third career no-hitter.
“It’s tough,” All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman said. “He’s a Cy Young (winner). He’s a top-of-the-rotation guy, top-of-the-rotation teammate, hard worker. We’re going to have to just battle. Some guys are going to have to step up.”
Verlander’s absence thins an already depleted pitching staff. Veteran rotation options Brad Peacock and Austin Pruitt are on the injured list with no precise timetable to return. Four of the team’s 10 relief pitchers had not appeared in a major league game before this season.
Heralded trade deadline acquisition Zack Greinke gave the club just 53 pitches in Sunday’s loss. He tired in the fourth inning and could not finish the frame. He collected just 10 outs. Without Verlander, Greinke emerges as the ace of Houston’s staff.
“Our team is really, really good and especially the offense,” Greinke said. “I’m pretty confident we’ll be fine for that.”
Greinke, Lance McCullers Jr. and Josh James will now comprise the top third of the rotation. No one man can fill the gaping void left by Verlander, but the Astros must attempt to find some reliability.
Prospects Cristian Javier, Brandon Bailey and Enoli Paredes exist as starting options already in the bullpen. Veteran minor leaguer Brandon Bielak and top pitching prospect Forrest Whitley are at the team’s alternate training site in Corpus Christi.
“It’s not a very pleasant situation to think about Verlander or to think about how many young players we have in our bullpen or our organization,” Baker said. “We’ll go back to the drawing board. and we’ll figure it out. We’re going to dwell on trying to find a solution as opposed to dwelling on the problem, because we know the problem that we have.”
First comes finding a starter for Wednesday night. Verlander was scheduled to oppose the Los Angeles Dodgers at Minute Maid Park, a much-anticipated rematch of the 2017 World Series. Baker had no idea Sunday who would take the ball.
“All this happened kind of quickly,” Baker said. “We don’t have any answers for you yet.”