Verlander thought he was done 4 years ago

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At PNC Park in Pittsburgh, a staircase leads visiting players from the dugout to their clubhouse. In that long corridor, away from all the cameras, Justin Verlander wept on Aug. 11, 2014.

Verlander's first pitch against the Pirates that night was a fastball. By his recollection, it registered 86 miles per hour. Clearly, something was wrong with the 2011 American League MVP Award and Cy Young Award winner, who leads all right-handers in strikeouts this century. After the first inning, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus approached Verlander to tell him that he could not, in good conscience, allow the right-hander to continue. An MRI would be next.

Verlander had dealt with right biceps tendinitis through the 2013 postseason, without the public becoming aware. He underwent sports hernia surgery during the subsequent offseason. But pain never howled through his arm quite like this. And so Verlander argued with Ausmus briefly, then acquiesced. It was the shortest regular-season start of his Major League career. He feared it would be his last.

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"There's that tunnel down there, and I sat down and lost it," Verlander said. "I thought my career was over. I thought I was done. I thought the MRI was going to say I needed shoulder surgery.

"I was 99 percent sure I was going to need shoulder surgery. I couldn't throw a baseball."

By now, you probably know two things: Verlander didn't need shoulder surgery, and he's currently enjoying the most dominant season of a probable Hall of Fame career. After Monday's emphatic 5-1 win over the Yankees, he leads the Majors with a 1.11 ERA. Verlander is pitching for the defending World Series champion Astros in a rotation that could become the best of all time.

Perhaps most tellingly, the 35-year-old is speaking candidly about a prospect that seemed so remote that night in Pittsburgh four years ago. Verlander wants to pitch in the Majors for another decade. As in, a decade from now.

"In my head, right now, I'm thinking 45," Verlander replied, when asked about the age at which he'd like to retire. "I don't know if that's realistic. I'm going to go as long as I can, until something changes.

"Getting hurt and all the work I did is going to [sustain] me until the end of my career. However far that [is], I don't know. But it's going to take me further than had I not experienced that. I thought I was going to be done now. I was wondering how I was going to get through my contract."

For the record, that contract expires at the end of the 2019 season. Verlander is earning $28 million this year and next, after which he's poised to enter free agency for the first time.

As it turned out, the pain in Verlander's shoulder during the 2014 start against the Pirates resulted from a failure to fully rehabilitate after the core muscle surgery earlier that year. "My body was a disaster," Verlander said.

Once the 2014 season ended, Verlander worked diligently with Annie Gow, a New York-based physical therapist, on what he describes as a "body reclamation project."

"I learned a ton about my body and maintenance," Verlander said. "Now I take it upon myself to maintain everything that I gained in that offseason. If some kinks in the chain pop up along the way, I'll call [Gow] and talk to her. I'll address it myself. I know a lot of my weaknesses. I address them almost daily, to try to keep on top of it. Obviously, I got into that position [before]. I want to stay away from going back."

The general narrative of Verlander's 2017 season is well-known: After nearly winning a second AL Cy Young Award in '16, he struggled at times in the first half last year. But Verlander recaptured his '11 form after agreeing to a trade mere seconds before a midnight deadline on Aug. 31. Following a suggestion from the Astros' renowned analytics staff, he relied more heavily on his four-seam fastball; Houston won nine of his 10 starts, including the postseason.

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All of that is true, but perhaps the most enduring adjustment in Verlander's 2017 season was a subtle one. In video of his early starts, he noticed his hand trailing behind his elbow by a greater margin than it should have. As a result, Verlander's offspeed pitches "popped" upward as they exited his hand in a way that they didn't when compared to footage from his '11 MVP/Cy Young Award season. The apparent trajectory of those pitches offered hitters a clue.

"When you're pushing [the ball upward], guys are more apt to be able to decide, 'That's up or out of the zone,'" Verlander said. "They recognize it. But if I'm on top and throwing with angle -- even if it's in the same location -- the way it comes out of my hand, it's presented more like a strike."

By Verlander's count, that was the 10th different hypothesis he tested during film and bullpen sessions in April and May last season. On this date last year, his ERA was 4.87.

"If I go back and look at the things I tried, they all made sense [after] that," Verlander said. "Once I found the way the elbow tracked, I [realized], 'If I fix this, everything should fall into place.' And it did."

Verlander remembers the night when it all clicked: June 21 in Seattle. He was perfect through five innings and struck out a season-high 11 batters. Even though the Tigers lost, Verlander knew he was back.

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Less than one year later, Verlander is answering questions about whether the Astros' rotation -- with a 2.44 ERA in the offense-heavy AL -- could be the greatest ever.

"I think we have a chance to be," Verlander said. "I've been around long enough where I don't take things like this for granted. It's pretty special to be part of a rotation that's this talented.

"I've been part of some pretty special staffs. It's fun with a group of guys that's as tight as we are. We all love our craft. We all love pitching. Talking with these guys, watching their success on the mound, watching Gerrit [Cole's] transformation and whatever small part I had in that ... it's a good feeling. It's just fun."

To those who observed Verlander closely in Detroit, the last part of that quotation is noteworthy: he acknowledges that he's more approachable for teammates in Houston than he was in Detroit.

"As I've gotten older, I've gotten a lot better at being able to talk to guys, talk pitching, and still do my routine," Verlander said. "That was the problem when I was younger. I was so ingrained in my routine and what I have to do to be good that everything else was outside noise. I've gotten better at listening to the outside noise and [staying] focused."

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Asked what changed, Verlander replied, "Just time. Just being comfortable. Stepping into a new organization was an opportunity. In Detroit, you're there for so long. Probably some of the really young guys think I'm unapproachable. Whatever. When I got here [to the Astros], it's like the new toy for everybody else: 'I've never talked with him about pitching.' That was cool. We just had a lot of great conversations about pitching."

Verlander has also talked with the former pitcher who watches many Astros games from behind home plate: Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Famer and Texas icon. Verlander grew up idolizing Ryan and dreaming that he'd join him in Cooperstown one day. Now with 194 career wins, over 2,500 strikeouts and a World Series ring, it's all becoming more realistic.

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And are there times when Verlander lets his mind wander there, when he notices the familiar face in the first row?

"I don't want to be in that frame of mind when I'm trying to get guys out at the highest level," Verlander said, before adding a smile. "But there are brief moments, where I'm like, 'That's the guy I wanted to be, and he's there watching me. This is pretty cool.'"

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