Justin Verlander adds to legacy with third no-hitter

We were sitting in the press box at Wrigley Field on Sunday watching a no-hitter — of sorts. Milwaukee’s Gio Gonzalez hadn’t allowed a hit in three innings against the Cubs, but he had walked four, and even if he hadn’t you knew that once Chicago reached its third time through the order, Brewers manager Craig Counsell would yank him. Indeed, Gonzalez was gone in the fourth in favor of a pinch-hitter, with a goose egg still on his pitching line under the hits category. It was a fairly obvious move, but even if it wasn’t, we’ve been increasingly conditioned to understand that there are more important things in today’s baseball than no-hitters.

When Gonzalez departed, it was about the exact moment when, on my iPad, we watched Toronto’s Bo Bichette bounce one to third base on the 120th pitch from Astros ace Justin Verlander, giving the future Hall of Famer his third career no-hitter. And you couldn’t help but think that, in these days of openers, five-inning starters and combined no-nos, that, right there, is what domination looks like. And you thought that is what the very concept of the ace starter means to this sport. Above all, when you watched Verlander break into a smile and thrust both arms into the air, you also knew that no one in today’s game, save for the possible exception of Washington’s Max Scherzer, typifies the archetype of the ace more than Justin Verlander.

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Verlander’s outing was emphatic even by the standards of a no-hitter. He walked Cavan Biggio, the second batter he saw, and that was it. Verlander faced 28 batters and struck out 14 of them, tied for the eighth-most Ks in a no-hitter. His game score (98) is tied for 13th among nine-inning no-nos. It’s the best game score for any pitcher this season and the best of his career.

Every no-hitter seems to carry with it its own quirky set of factoids, and this one is no different. First of all, it’s Verlander’s third career no-hitter, a total topped in baseball history by only Nolan Ryan (7) and Sandy Koufax (4), and matched by Bob Feller, Larry Corcoran and Cy Young (whose name we’ll be bringing up again in a bit).

Of Verlander’s three no-nos, two of them have come at the Rogers Centre, which is two more no-hitters than any Blue Jays pitcher has ever thrown. Only Ryan (three) has thrown more road no-hitters than Verlander’s two. At 36, he becomes the oldest hurler to throw a no-hitter since Randy Johnson in 2004. (All factoids via ESPN Stats & Info.)

With the historic outing, Verlander puts up another big, flashing datapoint in a couple of different pursuits, one short-term and the other down the line. The near-term chase is this year’s AL Cy Young race, in which Verlander was probably already the front-runner even before shutting down the Blue Jays. He is in a tight group in terms of WAR — both the Fangraphs and Baseball Reference versions — with Texas’ Mike Minor and Lance Lynn, Chicago’s Lucas Giolito and Verlander’s rotation-mate, Gerrit Cole. He leads the AL in win probability added.

In the traditional pitching Triple Crown categories, Verlander is now tied for the big league lead in wins (17, with the Yankees’ Domingo German), leads the AL with a 2.56 ERA and, at least for the time being, has surpassed Cole with a big league-leading 257 strikeouts. Now you drop a no-hitter-shaped cherry on top of that sundae, and it’s likely going to take a September collapse to turn voters’ heads elsewhere. If he gets it, Verlander would join a select group of 19 pitchers to win the honor more than once.

Which brings us to the longer term chase for Verlander, the baseball version of a marathon, the slow but steady race with a finish line laid out along Main Street in Cooperstown, New York. Verlander almost certainly had achieved no-brainer status even before Sunday, but now he’s in the process of climbing the various tiers on which his immortal future teammates reside.

With the 14 Ks, Verlander has reached 2,963 in his career and it now looks all but certain that before the season is over, he’ll become the 18th pitcher to crack 3,000. He’s now won 221 games and given his stated desire to pitch until 45, and the amazing trajectory he’s shown through his mid-30s, it appears more and more likely that the membership of the 300-win club has not permanently been closed. He’s been AL Rookie of the Year, has one AL Cy Young award (and counting), won the league’s MVP trophy in 2011 and has extended his excellence into the postseason, where he has one World Series ring (and counting) and 13 wins.

As for that aforementioned trajectory, it continues to be all but unprecedented and perhaps is the most amazing aspect of Verlander, circa 2019. Since he was traded to the Astros from the Tigers late in the 2017 season, he leads the AL in innings, wins, ERA, WHIP, strikeouts and opponent batting average. His no-hitter was not no one of those late-career marvels from a beloved veteran (think Dwight Gooden or Fernando Valenzuela) who has a big day with at ’em balls and guile. He mowed through the Blue Jays with 97-98 mph four-seamers and wipeout sliders. He looks as good right now, nearly 15 years into his career, as he ever has.

Verlander has been in the headlines a couple of times this season for less-than-ideal reasons, first bemoaning the spate of home runs in baseball and suggesting it was intentional, then later causing a sensation by refusing to conduct a postgame news conference if a writer he’s beefing with was present. When things like that happen, if invariably triggers a social media backlash and a few days’ worth of talking-head debates. And in the end, you’re left wondering why we even care.

On Sunday, Verlander reminded us why we care. It’s because he’s one of the biggest stars in his chosen profession, and in his specific vocation — pitching — few have ever done it better.

The ace is dead? As long as Justin Verlander is around, the ace lives on. And the game is better because of it.

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