Houston — This one goes way back.
When John Hicks was 10 years old, he would sit out at the baseball field at Goochland High School in Virginia and watch his older brother Daniel and Justin Verlander dominate teams.
And for two at-bats Wednesday, Verlander gave young Hicks the equivalent of a high school swirly. He got him to tap meekly back to the mound and then struck him out on three pitches.
But in the top of the ninth, in a 1-1 game, Hicks got his redemption. He got one of the two mistakes Verlander made on this night, a center-cut fastball at 94 mph, and sent it on a line over the wall in left field, giving the Tigers a most improbable 2-1 victory over the Houston Astros.
"It's surreal, for sure," said Hicks, who homered off Verlander at Minute Maid Park last season, too. "I've kept track of him his whole career and it was a special moment getting to catch him here (in 2017). And then getting to hit against him. I mean, he's got me plenty of times.
"I've gotten him twice."
Hicks was expecting to get a slider, which is the pitch Verlander made him look silly on in the first two at-bats.
"I would guess he was trying to go up with the heater and it stayed down," Hicks said. "Honestly, I was surprised he didn't go back to the slider. But I stayed with my fastball approach and adjusted to off-speed.
"Thankfully, I got one to hit."
How improbable was this win for the Tigers? The betting line in Las Vegas was a minus-550. The Astros were thus the biggest favorite ever in a big-league baseball game.
"This is one of those moments we haven't had many of," Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We've said we're playing better baseball and to beat one of the best pitchers in the game — he was unbelievable.
"He never pitched out of the stretch once. That tells you what kind of ballgame that was for us. For our ballclub, this is huge. I haven't seen them that excited in a long time."
The mood was slightly more somber on the other side.
"It’s a tough pill to swallow," Verlander said. "Obviously you want to come away with a win. You want the team to win. One bad pitch in the ninth inning. We battled back, and I give it back in the ninth.
"I don’t blame anybody but myself. I could have done a better job executing a pitch there in the ninth inning."
Two solo home runs — the other an opposite-field home run by Ronny Rodriguez in the fifth after he'd set down the first 14 hitters — was all the damage allowed by Verlander.
His 11 strikeouts extended his Astros-record double-digit strikeout streak to seven starts. He joins Randy Johnson, Chris Sale, Pedro Martinez and Nolan Ryan as the only pitchers to achieve that feat. Sale did it in eight straight.
The Rodriguez home run was a puzzler. Verlander had struck him out with sliders in the second inning and made him look bad with another slider to start the at-bat in the fifth.
But he came back with a fastball on the outer half of the plate and Rodriguez did not miss it.
"Kinda, sorta," Verlander said when asked if he'd like that pitch back. "It wasn’t exactly where I wanted it. It wasn’t as up as I would like it. He was able to put a swing on it."
Rodriguez was sitting fastball.
"I know he's a good pitcher and he throws a lot of fastballs up," he said. "I was looking for one of those pitches and I got it."
Verlander got 26 swings and misses, 13 with his slider. The 18 balls the Tigers put in play against him had an average exit velocity of 85.7 mph.
"This is huge," said Daniel Norris, who started and pitched three scoreless innings for the Tigers. "That was so much fun to watch. We've been playing really good ball this whole road trip. It was good to come out on top.
"Especially against Ver. Obviously, he's a good friend of mind, but that was really special."
All season long, Gardenhire has been harping on his outfielders to hit the cut-off man. Just throw the ball to the cut-off man. It has been a constant source of consternation for him.
On Wednesday, at exactly the most opportune time, the Tigers hit the cut-off man — and it might have been a game-saving play.
"We finally hit it," second baseman Gordon Beckham said. "Seems like there's been so many times this year where it didn't work out."
Two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Closer Joe Jimenez had struck out Yordan Alvarez and Yuli Gurriel. Robinson Chirinos, who had already singled, doubled and hit a home run (off Tyler Alexander who pitched four strong innings), laced a ball into the gap in right-center field.
"We were in a pull shift (shaded to left field) and when he hit the ball in the gap I went, 'Oh no,'" Gardenhire said. "The kid (right fielder Travis Demeritte) dove for it and the center fielder was backing up the play."
Harold Castro picked up the ball on the track and threw a no-look bullet to Beckham behind second base.
"I didn't even look, I just threw the ball to where I thought he was going to be," Castro said.
Beckham made a strong and accurate throw to third, where Dawel Lugo was waiting to apply the tag.
"Harold made a good throw," Beckham said. "Jordy (Mercer, shortstop) said he was screaming that he was going to third. I just hear the crowd, how they were getting more excited.
"I was able to make a good throw and we got him out and won the game. That was a lot of fun."
The Tigers made a heads-up defensive play to end the eighth inning, too. With Jose Altuve on first and one out, Alex Bregman hit a ground ball to Mercer at short. Altuve was running on the pitch and he tried to get to third when Mercer threw to first.
Rodriguez got the out at first and alertly fired across the diamond to nab Altuve.
"We've struggled with those things all year," Gardenhire said. "We've worked on it a lot. We've talked about it a lot. In a game like this, it was nice to see. We made two big plays. I hope they will think about that and realize how important it is to catch the ball and hit the cut-off man and do it right.
"If you make plays behind your pitcher, you have a chance to win baseball games."
Even when the opposing pitcher, a future Hall-of-Famer, allows just two hits in nine innings.
"We got him tonight," Gardenhire said with a chuckle. "But we really didn't get him."