Astros targeting Friday return for Justin Verlander

The Astros appear to be on the cusp of getting Cy Young frontrunner Justin Verlander back. Manager Dusty Baker tells reporters that while nothing is finalized yet, the organization’s tentative plan is for Verlander to return on Friday (Twitter link via Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle). Verlander hasn’t pitched since departing his Aug. 29 start after three innings due to what would eventually be diagnosed as “fascial disruption” in his calf.

If he indeed returns Friday, it’ll go down as an 18-day absence for Verlander — a near-best case scenario for an injury that, as acknowledged by the pitcher himself in the wake of his IL placement, could have sidelined him through a portion of the postseason had it been even marginally more severe.

[Related: The Changing Landscape of the American League Cy Young Race]

The 39-year-old Verlander has had nothing short of a remarkable season in his return from 2020 Tommy John surgery — not only reestablishing himself as a high-quality starter but resurfacing as a bona fide ace with a legitimate chance at his third Cy Young Award. Missing even a couple of starts could prove a deciding factor, particularly with Dylan Cease and Alek Manoah surging late in the season, but Verlander’s 1.84 ERA still tops American League pitchers. He’s now fallen to 18th in the league in innings pitched, however, narrowing any lead he might have previously held over the field. He’s also returning without a minor league rehab stint, so it’s at least possible the ’Stros will be a little more cautious than usual with his workload in his first outing.

The extent to which Verlander is able to bounce back from this calf issue will be telling with regard to the Cy Young race, though the team focus is surely just on having him built up to full strength for their now-inevitable postseason run. With 20 games left to play and a 12.5-game lead in the AL West, Houston hasn’t mathematically clinched the division crown, but that’s a fait accompli at this juncture. The Astros have the best record in the American League and the second-best record in baseball, trailing only the Dodgers, positioning them for a first-round bye in this year’s newly expanded 12-team playoff format.

That will give Houston the luxury of lining up the rotation however the team deems fit. Assuming he’s at full strength, Verlander would be the obvious choice to take the ball in Game 1 of the American League Division Series, likely to be followed by lefty Framber Valdez, who figures to get some down-ballot recognition in this year’s Cy Young voting himself. With Lance McCullers Jr. back on the active roster and 25-year-old righties Cristian Javier and Luis Garcia each pitching well (Javier, in particular) — the Astros are deep in options for their postseason rotation.

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