HOUSTON – Houston manager A.J. Hinch loves that Justin Verlander, his starter for Game 1 of the American League Division Series against the Boston Red Sox on Thursday, has a ton of postseason experience.
Hinch, however, is still plenty concerned about Red Sox starter Chris Sale despite this being his playoff debut.
“I don’t think Sale is going to back down,” Hinch said. “I don’t think he’ll be spooked by not having experience.”
After eight years in the majors, Sale said that finally getting a chance to pitch in the postseason is “pretty fulfilling.” But he’s trying to control his emotions about the opportunity.
“It’s going to be hard not to, but try not to put too much emphasis on it,” he said. “Just try to treat this just like another game. You get a little amped up sometimes and that can kind of go crazy.”
The A.L. East champion Red Sox are in the playoffs for the second straight year. The West champion Astros return to the postseason for the second time in three years after breaking a 10-year playoff drought with their trip in 2015.
Verlander is a six-time All-Star who has appeared in the playoffs five times. He is 7-5 with a 3.39 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 16 career postseason starts, but hasn’t been there since 2014. He believes there is an advantage to having playoff experience, but no matter how many times he’s done it, he still deals with jitters when he takes the mound in a game that means so much.
“I definitely think there is some value in it … just more along the lines of knowing what to expect,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to help calming my nerves or give me an edge in that way, but knowing what I’m going to deal with, going into the start, how I’m going to feel during the start, how much more emphasis and stress is put on every single pitch, knowing those things I think helps prepare me better.”
Verlander got used to being in the playoffs after reaching the World Series in his first full major league season in 2006 and advancing to the postseason each year from 2011-14 with Detroit. He has a different feeling entering the playoffs this year after a trade just before the deadline for players to be eligible for the postseason brought him to Houston for another shot at a ring at age 34.
“To have the opportunity to once again be in the playoffs I could say I don’t take it for granted anymore,” he said. “It seemed easy for a while with the Tigers organization, especially going my first year to the World Series, so I appreciate every step of the way now even more, I think.”
The Astros are looking for him to build on the work he’s done since arriving in Houston just more than a month ago. The right-hander is 5-0 with a 1.06 ERA in five starts since the deal and 15-8 with a 3.36 ERA in 33 starts overall this season.
“There’s a professional excellence to him in every facet that you would ask out of a teammate, out of a guy in the clubhouse, and then ultimately performance on the field, which is why we acquired him,” Hinch said. “So what he’s done in his short time here is establish himself as very much a part of what we’re doing but not entirely what we’re doing … I think our guys feel like we’re going to win when he pitches.”
Sale gets the nod in Game 1 after going 17-8 with a 2.90 ERA and topping the A.L. with 214 1/3 innings. The left-hander led the majors with 308 strikeouts and was the first pitcher in the A.L. to fan 300 batters since Pedro Martinez in 1999.
Red Sox manager John Farrell has no doubt that Sale will handle the pressure of the playoffs well. He noted the seamless way he transitioned from the White Sox after a December trade as evidence that he’s fully capable of handling big situations well.
“I think the beauty inside of Chris Sale is that he focuses solely on the things that he can control … he’s done such an excellent job of that coming in with all the expectations and the highlight from the trade,” Farrell said. “He’s handled it beautifully and I would suspect at this stage, this next set of games in which he’s going to experience for the first time will be handled the same way.”
After Verlander and Sale meet in Game 1, it will be Houston lefty Dallas Keuchel, the 2015 A.L. Cy Young Award winner, meeting Boston’s Drew Pomeranz on Friday. Neither team has announced its rotation past that.
Sale, who enters this game on extra rest after last pitching on Sept. 26, was asked about the possibility of pitching on three days’ rest.
“I’m in,” he said with a smile. “This is what I live for. I’m throwing until my arm falls off.”
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.