Justin Verlander dazzles in World Series Game 5. Astros within a title game

PHILADELPHIA — If Thursday night’s Game 5 of the World Series was Justin Verlander’s final outing with the Astros, then the team and its fan base will remember him for being gutsy, battling tough at-bats and, ultimately, for the push.

At times, Verlander’s start looked like a toss-up. He navigated traffic on the basepaths the way only a 17-year major league veteran could. Focused and unruffled, Verlander’s best moments in the Astros’ 3-2 victory — the first World Series victory of his storied career — over the Phillies came when he was in trouble.

Take, for example, the immediate seconds after Kyle Schwarber took Verlander deep on his second pitch of the night. Leading off the bottom of the first, Schwarber scorched Verlander’s 93 MPH fastball to right field and quickly erased the lead Jeremy Peña had just given Houston in the top of the inning.

The momentum had shifted for good in the Phillies’ favor as a swarm of fans waving red towels threatened to burst everyone’s eardrums. It didn’t look good for Verlander as World Series history white-knuckled at his door. The solo shot he gave Schwarber also put Verlander in the record books as the pitcher with the most World Series runs allowed (10) in MLB history.

Verlander responded to this momentary adversity by striking out five of his next six batters. He worked with catcher JT Realmuto, made his pitches, and prevented the Phillies from taking advantage of that momentum shift.

Not long after, in the second inning, the Phillies turned up the heat on Verlander again by loading the bases with two outs. Although, over the years, Verlander’s fastball has been his worst pitch, the 39-year-old reunited with his slider to strike out Rhy Hoskins on five pitches and leave the bases loaded in the second. Again, he stifled the Phillies’ source of propulsion.

In the days and hours leading up to that outing, there was widespread speculation about whether Verlander was the right guy to start Game 5. The World Series record – a 6.07 ERA in eight career World Series starts, including this year’s Game 1 – loomed large. Less than a week ago, the Phillies reached for Verlander in just their second turn through the order, rallying for six costly hits against the veteran and eventually giving up five runs.

That comeback was compounded by Astros manager Dusty Baker’s questionable decision to leave Verlander in the game long enough for the Phillies to tie the game at 5-5. Now, flash forward just hours before Verlander’s Game 5 starts, and Baker has shown again that he’ll stick with his ace in tough situations.

“Everybody’s wondering, is he on a short leash? No, he’s not on a leash at all,” Baker said before Thursday’s game. “I mean, it’s Justin Verlander. Nobody can get out of trouble better than him.”

It was time again in the fifth inning for Verlander to prove his wise skipper right. With the Astros leading the Phillies 2-1, Bryce Harper came in to score on a double to right field by Verlander. The tying run was a base hit away from scoring. No one would blame Baker for taking Verlander out of his start right there and then in favor of right-hander Hector Nerys, who was up and warming up in the Astros’ bullpen.

But no leash means no leash. True to his word, Baker didn’t budge an inch even when Nick Castellanos fouled Verlander out of bounds. Slider, fastball, slider, slider, fastball, slider, changeup, curveball, curveball, slider. Verlander, approaching 100 pitches in what was almost certainly his last outing of the year, emptied the tank against Castellanos. Finally, on the 10th pitch of the at-bat, Verlander got Castellanos to bite, inducing a flyout to left field for the final out of the fifth.

Verlander, knowing immediately that he was going to stay in the park, watched as left fielder Jordan Alvarez secured Castellano’s ball in his glove. Verlander pulled out his arm and yelled, “Let’s go!” Then he briefly touched the brim of his hat and calmly walked back into the Astros’ dugout.

Eight rows behind the Houston dugout was Verlander’s wife, Kate Upton, wearing a fuzzy orange jacket and an orange backpack, the only one in her section cheering as Verlander dodged bullet after bullet. While Verlander was the picture of calm, Upton hopped and jumped in front of her seat, thoroughly enjoying what might have been Verlander’s last start as an Astro.

He stranded seven men on base in his five-inning, six-strikeout, 94-pitch outing. Schwarber’s home run in his first at-bat of the night was the only run Thursday allowed to cap an incredible comeback season. He missed nearly all of the past two seasons with a torn elbow ligament that required Tommy John surgery.

Verlander, 39, can enter free agency next week if he chooses to exercise his player option and explore the open market. There will certainly be contending teams interested in locking up the arm that posted the majors’ best ERA (1.75) this season, which next month will almost certainly earn him his third career Cy Young Award.

His start in Game 5 against the Phillies made Verlander even more attractive to franchises looking to add a future Hall of Famer who just broke his World Series record. Despite the constant criticism, speculation and doubt, Verlander pitched in one of the Astros’ most important games of the year. All eyes will be on what the brilliant pitcher decides to do next.

Deesha Thosar is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the Mets for the New York Daily News. Follow her on Twitter at @Deesha Thosar.

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