Justin Verlander knew this would be one of the most emotional games of his major league career.
He still wasn’t prepared.
In his return to Detroit, Verlander received three standing ovations while pitching the Houston Astros to a 3-2 victory over the Tigers on Monday night.
Verlander (15-9) made his major league debut with the Tigers in 2005 and ranks among the top 10 on several of the team’s career lists. He struck out 10 over seven innings in his first time on the Comerica Park mound since being traded to Houston in August 2017.
“Our hotel is right near my old house, so I got to spend some time in the neighborhood today,” he said. “I was trying to keep my routine as much as possible.”
That hope ended early, as the scoreboard played a tribute video as Verlander was walking in from the bullpen after his pregame warmups. He stopped, alone in shallow right-center field, and watched the entire show.
“It was almost normal until the tribute video, but that really got to me,” he said. “I had a lot of great memories in my 13 years here, and that brought it all back. I wanted to get to the dugout before it started, but once it started playing, I had to watch.”
Verlander received his first ovation at the end of the video, and another when he came out for the first inning. Each time, he tipped his cap and waved to the fans.
The longest cheer, though, came when he walked off the mound after the seventh, having thrown 104 pitches.
“The one after the seventh really meant the world to me,” he said. “The fans here were always great to be here, and they showed that again tonight. That was a really emotional moment.”
The crowd was announced at 19,711 — the Detroit Lions opened their season next door Monday night against the New York Jets.
“Tonight mattered a lot to him,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “It is important to him that he pitched here and succeeded here, so it was special for him to get back on that mound.”
The World Series champion Astros opened a three-game lead over Oakland atop the AL West despite a sloppy game that came after a Sunday night loss in Boston.
“I’m proud of our guys, because there was a lot going on today, and we didn’t play our best game, but we still found a way to pull out a win,” Hinch said.
Verlander allowed two runs on six hits and one walk, improving to 98-50 at Comerica Park. Max Scherzer is second in career wins at the stadium with 46, while Jordan Zimmermann leads current Tigers with 14.
“He got exactly the response he deserved from our fans,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He was a great pitcher here for a long time, and he did a lot of great things for this city.”
The Tigers put two runners on in the seventh, but Verlander struck out JaCoby Jones and Jeimer Candelario to escape with a 3-2 lead. He tipped his cap again as the fans came to their feet after the final pitch to Candelario.
“This was a special night,” Verlander said.
Roberto Osuna worked the ninth for his 16th save, including seven with Houston.
Francisco Liriano (4-10) allowed three unearned runs on four hits and four walks in six innings. He struck out seven in his longest outing since pitching six innings on July 4.
The Tigers took the lead in the second. Niko Goodrum doubled and later scored on a single by Dawel Lugo.
Liriano’s wild pitch and an error by shortstop Ronny Rodriguez allowed the Astros to score three unearned runs in the third. Tyler White and Marwin Gonzalez hit RBI singles, while the Tigers failed to turn two potential double plays.
“You have to make plays,” Gardenhire said. “When you miss plays, that’s what always happens. We had a chance to get some outs, didn’t do it, and it cost us runs.”
Verlander settled down after the second, retiring the next nine batters. Candelario walked to start the sixth, Christin Stewart followed with his first major league hit and Nicholas Castellanos had a sacrifice fly.
“If someone had told me that I was going to get my first hit off Justin Verlander in my first major league start . geez,” Stewart said. “It was a pretty out-of-body experience.”
Castellanos made a leaping catch at the right field fence to take an extra-base hit away from Gonzalez in the eighth.
Josh Reddick, in the game for Houston as a defensive replacement, started an inning-ending double play in the eighth with a sliding catch in left field.
The game started at 6:10 p.m., an hour earlier than originally scheduled, to try to ease traffic congestion with the Lions playing at Ford Field. A day game wasn’t possible because of the Astros playing on Sunday night in Boston.
The teams continue their three-game series Tuesday night with Zimmermann (7-6, 4.03 ERA) facing Houston’s Framber Valdez (3-1, 1.37).