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Inside Baseball: Verlander a huge boost as Astros make push to lift a beaten city

In the wake of the stunning trade that went down late Thursday night, Houston in 2017 how has a much-improved chance of becoming Boston of 2013 or New York of 2001.

The Yankees, remember, were two outs away from winning the World Series in Game Seven at Arizona in the emotional aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. The Red Sox were a unifying source for a city all summer in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings and went on to win an emotional Fall Classic against St. Louis.

The aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and the torrents of rain it unleashed on the nation's fourth-largest city will only span two months of the baseball season in Houston, but the eyes of Texas will be upon the Astros' run through the postseason.

And now that Justin Verlander is in their rotation, their teetering chances of making the Series have been given a huge boost.

The longtime ace of the Detroit Tigers will make his Houston debut Tuesday night in Seattle after the on-again/off-again deal was finally consummated just ahead of Thursday's midnight deadline for postseason roster eligiblity.

All of a sudden, you have Verlander with fellow former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr. at the top of a rotation that will be tough to crack in a five- or seven-game series. The defending AL champion Cleveland Indians and the Red Sox will be tough outs but the Astros have been the best team in the AL all season and their one major question mark just got cut down.

Inside Baseball: Right on cue, an out-of-this-world season for Astros

Verlander is red-hot of late, going 5-1 with a 2.06 ERA over his last seven starts. The start before that streak came July 30, when he pitched six scoreless innings against the Astros in a 13-1 Detroit win.

"He immediately impacts every aspect of our team - clubhouse, preparation and on-field performance," manager A.J. Hinch told Houston reporters. "I don't know that we could've made a better addition."

And while the Astros gave up three prospects in the deal, they also have control of Verlander for two more seasons after this one at a reasonable cost of $20 million after the Tigers agreed to pick up $8 million of his salary for each season.

Keuchel had been critical of GM Jeff Luhnow for not making any big moves while other teams did at the July 31 non-waiver deadline. But Luhnow connected a month later.

"Nothing forces a deal like a deadline, as we all know, and midnight Eastern was the last moment we could add someone to our organization and have them be available for the postseason," Luhnow said. "So it was now or never.

"He's a competitor, he's got tremendous experience, he's got tremendous stuff," Luhnow said. "He's one of the few pitchers whose velocity goes up later in the game. He's on an incredible roll recently."

The Astros took Friday off to get home to their families and returned to Minute Maid Park for a doubleheader Saturday against the Mets. Verlander, meanwhile, took to Instagram to make a video to thank the Tigers and their fans before turning his attention to Houston.

"I'm excited to go to Houston," Verlander said. "It's another city in turmoil right now as everybody knows. I'm excited to give the city something to rally around and something to cheer for and root for. And hopefully we can bring a championship to Houston. So I'm excited about this next chapter in my life."

The Astros will certainly be playing for a lot more than just their own clubhouse the next couple of months. Promotional items scheduled to be given away this weekend, including 10,000 Carlos Correa jerseys, will instead be brought to the city's convention center and given to evacuees.

The ballpark will also be hosting a food drive and taking donations for relief efforts. Players spent Friday reuniting with their families and fanning throughout the city visiting with evacuees and first responders. Then it was time to return to baseball, to try to give some solace to a beaten city.

"There were probably a couple weeks after 9/11 where people didn't smile at all, didn't laugh at all," former Yankees reliever Mike Stanton, now a television analyst for the Astros, told on Friday. "You're going to have the same thing going on down here with the mass devastation that happened."

Said Astros president of business Reid Ryan: "We want to have Saturday and Sunday that can be something to bring joy to the hearts of people in Houston."

Herd packed folks in

After 30 years in Coca-Cola Field, the Bisons still do a remarkable job of getting people to come downtown in the summer. And while Wednesday's near-sellout was mostly to see Celery's long-awaited win in the mascot race, the turnstiles were humming most of August even though the team was going nowhere in the standings.

The per-game average for the season of 8,101 was up slightly from last year's figure of 8,039. The final tickets-sold count of 526,574 ranks as the second-smallest in ballpark history but only because weather kept the team down to 65 dates this year. That equals the second-smallest total of the last 15 seasons. With good weather and a normal slate of around 70 games, the team could have pushed its Toronto-affiliation mark of 562,755 set last year.

Of particular note was the way the Bisons drew as the season wound down. The team sold at least 8,000 tickets for its final 18 dates, cracked 10,000 for seven of its last nine and rang up 29,567 for the final two appearances of the season.

The August average for 13 dates was 10,960 per opening, which is a pretty remarkable figure for a month of Triple-A ball. The IL leader for the season is Indianapolis, which entered the weekend averaging 9,159 per game. The Bisons will finish fifth in the 14-team league.

The impact of Canadian fans to watch Blue Jays prospects is real, as those numbers show and your eyes do as well with the numbers of Toronto jerseys in the stands.

The Bisons are not the Bills or Sabres in terms of fans living each moment of the game breathlessly. The experience is more the thing but those who say Buffalo fans don't care about baseball are simply not studying the numbers or listening to the hum in the park when the Herd put together a rally in August.

The Bisons, like the Bills, have the longest current playoff drought in their league having not gone to the postseason since 2005. You wonder what some August nights would be like again if they were in the hunt as they were virtually every year they were a Cleveland affiliate. The influx of fans from both Buffalo and Toronto to make the game the thing again would grow even more.

More Herd grapevine

* A few words on Celery: It's amazing the Bisons got seven years of good times out of their mascot race. And while the stalk's victory didn't come with the kind of lunacy and drama you may have expected, you had to get a kick out of PA announcer Tom Burns channeling his inner Al Michaels and letting out "Do you believe in miracles? YES!" as Celery crossed the finish line.

After 449 losses (and extra innings), Celery goes out a winner

And when Buster Bison took Celery to the mound under a spotlight's shine to raise his hand in triumph, the roar of the crowd was astounding. One of the loudest single moments I've heard in the park in years.

* What does the team do with the mascot race now? The drama is gone. How about this? Every so often, Celery has to make guest appearances and the script should be flipped that it never loses.

* No callup for outfielder and Bisons' MVP Roemon Fields? Maybe the Blue Jays will take care of that after Monday's finale in Syracuse although Fields is not on the 40-man roster and the Jays would need to make a spot for him. Fields entered the weekend batting .288 and leading the IL in stolen bases with his franchise-record total of 42.

* You have to appreciate the job done with this team by manager Bobby Meacham, pitching coach Bob Stanley and hitting coach Devon White. This staff made sure this club didn't pack it in. After going a combined 17-41 in June and July, the Bisons went 18-12 in August. That's their second-most wins in the season's final full month since the playoff drought started.

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