ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Justin Verlander relished facing Blake Snell on opening day.
“I don’t try to hide behind the this-is-just-another-start anymore,” the Houston ace said.
The Astros star delivered, beating Snell and the Tampa Bay Rays 5-1 in a rare season-opening matchup between pitchers who finished first and second in balloting for the Cy Young Award.
“There definitely is more intensity to it,” Verlander added. ” It’s kind of somewhere between a playoff game and a regular-season game, so I just kind of used the adrenalin, and you go from there.”
George Springer homered on opening day for the third straight year. Michael Brantley and Jose Altuve also went deep for the Astros against Snell, the AL Cy Young recipient who won 21 games and led the league in ERA.
Verlander (1-0) allowed a leadoff homer to Austin Meadows on his fourth before dominating a mostly young Tampa Bay lineup featuring just one player — center fielder Kevin Kiermaier — who started for the Rays on opening day last year.
“I just hit the reset button real quick,” the 36-year-old right-hander said.
“It’s not something you want to do, to lead off the year with a homer,” Verlander added. “But I’ve done it before, so it was let’s go turn the page and try to find it.”
Verlander, fresh off signing a three-year contract that added $66 million in guaranteed money for 2020 and 2021, limited the Rays to one run and three hits over seven innings before a crowd of 25,025 at Tropicana Field — Tampa Bay’s 14th consecutive sellout for a home opener.
“We ran into a buzz saw. He did a great job having all of us off balance,” Kiermaier said. “For me personally, I feel like every time I thought a fastball was coming it was an offspeed. A couple times I thought he’s going to try to get me to chase an off speed, it was a heater.”
Verlander, who improved to 4-1 in 11 opening day starts, struck out nine and only allowed one hit — Yandy Diaz’s seventh-inning double — and three baserunners total after walking a batter and plunking another in the second.
Ryan Pressly pitched a scoreless eighth and Roberto Osuna worked a perfect ninth inning to finish a combined four-hitter.
Springer gave Astros ace all the offensive support he’d need with a three-run homer in the third off Snell, who yielded five runs and six hits over six innings of his first opening day start.
The 26-year-old lefty, who signed a $50 million, five-year contract extension this month, walked two batters ahead of Springer’s home run and finished with three strikeouts.
“I was happy with a lot of things I did, but I was upset with sequencing,” Snell said. “Threw first pitch curveballs to Springer twice. Right there credit him. He was waiting for it. I fell in love with the curveball and didn’t mix pitches like I should have been doing.”
With the NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom facing Washington’s Max Scherzer earlier Thursday, Snell vs. Verlander became the fourth instance of a reigning Cy Young recipient facing the runner-up for the award on opening day the next season.
The other two matchups both occurred in 1979, when reigning AL winner Ron Guidry (Yankees) faced runner-up Mike Caldwell (Brewers) and NL winner Gaylord Perry (Padres) faced Burt Hooton (Dodgers).
Despite closing the upper deck at Tropicana Field, reducing capacity of the domed stadium to 25,025 for this season, Thursday’s game wasn’t announced as a sellout until late Wednesday. It’s the 14th consecutive season the Rays have sold out the home opener, however the club routinely finishes near the bottom of the majors in attendance, including 29th among 30 teams in 2018. Attendance for the past five home openers was listed as Last year’s opening day attendance was announced as 31,042.
“It’s problematic,” Rays principal owner Stu Sternberg said of the late sellout, noting there were far fewer tickets available than for previous openers.
“25,000 seats given everything that we are; the way we finished last year; the team we had; the 4 o’clock start, it should be a layup to use a different sport phrase,” the owner added. “It is what it is.”
Snell’s loss was his first since July 12 at Minnesota, ending a stretch of nine consecutive victories over a span of 10 starts. … The young left-hander didn’t allow more than two runs in any of his 14 starts at home in 2018. He yielded one or fewer in 12 of them.
Astros: RHP’s Lance McCullers Jr. (right elbow surgery) and Joe Smith (left Achilles’ tendon surgery) were both placed on the 10-day injured list. Meanwhile, SS Carlos Correa (nick stiffness) said before the game that his injury is “nothing major” and that he hopes to be ready to play some time before the end of the four-game series.
Rays: To finalize the opening day roster, 3B Matt Duffy (left hamstring tightness), LHP Anthony Banda (Tommy John surgery) and RHP Jose De Leon (Tommy John surgery) were placed on the 10-day injured list.
RHP Charlie Morton, 15-3 with a 3.13 ERA in 30 starts last season with Houston, will make his Tampa Bay debut Friday night against the Astros and RHP Gerrit Cole (15-5, 2.88 ERA in 2018). Signed to a $30 million, two-year contract as a free agent by the Rays, Morton won Game 7 in both the ALCS and World Series in 2017 for the Astros.