Justin Verlander is slated to make his first start of the 2024 season on Friday when the Houston Astros open a three-game series against the Washington Nationals, per Astros manager Joe Espada. The long-anticipated debut comes perhaps sooner than some expected, but the Astros needed some good fortune and feel Verlander's return can help right the ship following a 6-14 start.

“Getting him back is huge because it brings a level of confidence to our team, a boost of confidence that we’re going to get someone who’s been an MVP, a Cy Young (winner) on the mound,” Espada said, via The Associated Press. “It's (good) for the morale and to get stuff started and moving in the right direction.”

Verlander was sidelined with right shoulder inflammation and did not appear in a spring training game for the Astros. The 41-year-old made two rehab starts in the minor leagues, scattering 14 hits and 11 earned runs across seven innings of work.

Though the stats from those starts aren’t encouraging, the main focus was to get Verlander's pitch count up. He threw 77 pitches in his last start on Saturday, fanning three batters across four innings. He struck out six in three innings in his first rehab start on April 7.

Verlander posted a 3.31 ERA in 11 starts with the Astros last season after Houston acquired him from the New York Mets in a trade. He followed it with a 2.95 ERA in 18.1 innings across three playoff starts. The Astros were eliminated in the ALCS by the eventual World Series champion Texas Rangers.

The three-time Cy Young Award winner is in the second year of a two-year contract. The deal also carries a vesting option worth $35 million for 2025 if Verlander pitches 140 innings this season.

Astros in unfamiliar territory

Houston Astros pitcher Justin Verlander (35) throws during the fifth inning of game five in the ALCS against the Texas Rangers for the 2023 MLB playoffs at Globe Life Field
Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

Houston is off to its worst start through 20 games since 2016, the year before their dominance began. While the daunting offense continues to click, Astros pitching has been awful to begin the 2024 season.

Houston has a team ERA of 5.24, second-worst in the league only to the Colorado Rockies. Losing two-time All-Star Framber Valdez to elbow inflammation didn’t help and the Astros bullpen hasn’t carried its weight either. Houston relievers have a 5.47 ERA in 79 innings, with $95 million closer Josh Hader carrying an 8.31 ERA in 10 appearances.

The return of Verlander should help ease the bullpen's workload, but if Father Time finally starts to catch up to the 18-year veteran, it could spell even more trouble for the Astros.

Houston also might not be able to rely on the bright spots of the rotation all season. Cristian Javier and Ronel Blanco have combined to allow six earned runs in 44.1 innings while the rest of the Astros starters have an 8.29 ERA. It's hard to rely on those numbers being sustainable throughout a six-month season.

History suggests that Justin Verlander will return to form and the Astros will get back on track. Eventually, all good things come to an end though. Could we be looking at the beginning of the end of the Astros dynasty? How Verlander performs will go a long way in determining that.