Framber Valdez has only wanted one thing this season after getting more opportunities to take the ball: To show what kind of pitcher he is and always has been. And while many would never have been able to predict that the 26-year-old would become the ace of the 2020 Astros,
Framber Valdez has only wanted one thing this season after getting more opportunities to take the ball: To show what kind of pitcher he is and always has been. And while many would never have been able to predict that the 26-year-old would become the ace of the 2020 Astros, he once again proved why he’s earned that title.
After five scoreless frames in the Wild Card Series and a stellar seven-inning performance against the A’s in the American League Division Series, Valdez turned in another quality outing on Sunday, giving up two runs on four hits in six frames with eight strikeouts. But this time, it wasn’t enough, as the Astros dropped Game 1 of the AL Championship Series to the Rays, 2-1, at Petco Park.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to recognize just how strong an outing a starter has in a loss. And while a rare quiet night for the Houston bats drew much of the attention, Valdez was sure to leave a lasting impression, beginning in the first inning. The lefty recorded three swinging strikeouts on 11 pitches to start his night, becoming the second pitcher to do so against the Rays this season, joining Toronto’s Matt Shoemaker (Aug. 16).
“Yeah, it helped me with my confidence and to feel comfortable from the beginning there to punch those first three guys out,” Valdez said through an interpreter. “The first inning made it easier on me, honestly.”
Valdez faced the minimum through three innings, thanks to a double play in the second and a pickoff in the third, and his curveball -- once again -- was the biggest key to his success. Entering the night, Valdez had turned to his curveball 42.6 percent of the time this postseason, and he threw the curve 42 percent of the time on Sunday. Six of his eight strikeouts against the Rays came on his curve and the pitch induced 10 whiffs on 20 attempts on the night, which marked the second most in a game in his career, trailing his 12-whiff performance on Sept. 17 against Texas.
“I feel like I executed the majority of my pitches,” Valdez said. “Obviously I’ll miss a couple, that’s normal. But it was good to get off to a good start like that.”
Two of the four hits Valdez permitted in Game 1 came on his curve, but the pitch has nearly been untouchable all season. Batters hit just .124 (13-for-105) against it during the regular season, which was the fourth-lowest average against a curveball in the Majors. Not to mention that no pitcher struck out more batters on a curve than Valdez (60). And what made Valdez even more difficult to hit was the command of his sinker, which was called for a strike 17 times, tied for the most in his career.
“He was very, very tough.” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “He was really good against us.”
But that sinker needed to catch just enough of the outside corner of the plate for the red-hot Randy Arozarena to smack it out of the ballpark to tie the game at 1 in the fourth.
“That was where I wanted to execute the pitch, in the upper corner up there,” Valdez said. “But he executed as well. I mean, he’s getting hits a lot lately, and put a good swing on it and he executed.”
Valdez did his best to leave the Arozarena blast as his only blemish of the evening, but he was unable to work around a leadoff walk in the fifth, despite his highlight-reel-worthy efforts. A groundout put a runner on second with one out before Valdez made a behind-the-back snag on a ground ball back to the mound which allowed him to record the second out at first. But the runner on third scored on a two-out Mike Zunino single to center that became the deciding run.
“He had his sinker working,” Zunino said. “His breaking ball was really sharp, so it was one of those things where, with a guy in scoring position, I was trying to get something up in the zone and was lucky to get a fastball and find a hole, even with the shift.”
Though his perfect 2-0 postseason record heading into the ALCS now has a tally in the loss column, Valdez proved once again why he’s earned the trust of his team to take the ball in important games. He’s pitched to a 2.00 ERA (four runs in 18 innings) this postseason with 17 strikeouts, and he said he’s only gaining more confidence each time he toes the rubber.
“I feel like this year I’ve had a chance to really demonstrate the pitcher that I am and that I always have been,” Valdez said. “I had, in the past, where things could get away from me a little bit in the middle of the game, but I’ve made adjustments to my game this year. … For me, I just feel blessed to have the success that I’ve had this year.”
Mandy Bell covers the Indians for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MandyBell02.