CLEVELAND, Ohio — The four rookies all knew about Justin Verlander. When they were growing up, they watched him on TV or collected his baseball cards.
Did Verlander know Steven Kwan, Nolan Jones, Will Benson and Tyler Freeman? Outside of what the Houston Astros’ scouting reports had to say about the Guardians four rookies — probably not.
Well, introductions were made Thursday night at Progressive Field. Verlander, 39, pitched six innings to beat the Guardians, 6-0. Along the way, Kwan, Jones, Benson and Freeman went 0-for-9 with four strikeouts against him.
As Terry Francona, managing the youngest team in the big leagues, has said from time to time this season, “We’re playing kids against grown men. . and we’re doing all right.”
It’s not like Verlander, leading the big leagues with 15 wins and a 1.73 ERA, preyed only on the Guardians’ rookies. Veterans Amed Rosario and Jose Ramirez, hitting second and third, went 0-for-6 against the right-hander who could win his his third Cy Young award this season.
On the Guardians, Kwan is a rookie in name only. He’s been here since opening day and his single in the eighth inning off Ryne Stanek extended his hitting streak to 18 games.
Still, Justin Verlander is Justin Verlander.
Kwan struck out to start the game, flied out to left field in the third and bounced back to the Verlander in the sixth.
“He’s been doing it for a while,” said Kwan. “He’s still really consistent. He has a really firm plan and he sticks with it.
“He’s got action on the fastball at the top of the zone. It has life on it. There’s a reason why he’s been doing this for so long.”
Kwan had 340 big-league at-bats before facing Verlander. In comparison Jones (60), Freeman (three) and Benson (two) were newborns.
Jones, hitting sixth, struck out to end the second and grounded out to start the fifth.
“I was mentally preparing myself to face a guy with such a presence on the mound,” said Jones. “Physically, his stuff is really good. I was just trying to be 100% committed to what I was looking for.”
Jones said Veralander threw him mostly fastballs.
“When you get a guy like that, with everything he’s earned on the mound, you respect it,” said Jones. “But it’s one-on-one when you get in the box. It’s just compete mode.”
Benson, making his first big league start, hit seventh behind Jones. He struck out in in the second and fifth innings.
“Absolutely I followed Verlander,” said Benson, who made his first big league start Thursday. “One of my favorite baseball players is Miguel Cabrera. So at that time Verlander and Cabrera were two powerhouses for the Tigers. I used to love watching Verlander pitch.”
Thursday night he got to face Verlander for real.
“Just to be in that box, at that moment, I was ready to compete and see what it looks like for myself,” said Benson.
Verlander, who won the AL Cy Young and MVP in 2011, changed his approach against Benson after throwing fastballs to Kwan and Jones.
“He threw me mostly off speed to my surprise,” said Benson. “I thought he was going to attack me hard right away to see if I could hit a fastball. But I was mistaken.
“He attacked me soft, especially in the second at-bat. Still, either way, to be able to experience that was dope. But I wish I had come through and helped the team win.”
Freeman batted ninth and hit into force plays in the third and fifth innings.
“When I was growing up, Verlander was in his youth and I always kind of looked up to him,” said Freeman. “Every year Verlander and (Clayton) Kershaw were the best pitchers. He’s a Hall of Famer. Just to be able to stand in the box against him is amazing.
“He was as advertised. He had really good stuff and he had our number tonight.”
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