DETROIT -- For seven innings on Friday night, Framber Valdez had the baseball world on tenterhooks. With each out, the anticipation grew. The buzz from 23,832 fans at Comerica Park, hoping for a Tigers victory but also witnessing what could become baseball history, got louder. Google searches for “Johnny ‘Double No-Hit’ Vander Meer” surely went through the roof.
But it wasn’t meant to be -- and soon after the no-hit bid dissipated, so did the win.
Valdez went seven no-hit innings in a 4-1 loss to the Tigers, but lacking his best command, his pitch count quickly became his worst enemy. He issued five walks and a hit-by-pitch, and after 114 pitches (64 strikes), manager Dusty Baker had seen enough from his starter. Valdez, who hurled a no-hitter on Aug. 1, would not become the first pitcher since Vander Meer in 1938 to throw two no-nos in a calendar month. He was left, simply, with an excellent start.
Across his seven innings, Valdez accelerated a trend that’s been visible since mid-June, leaning on his changeup while shying away from his curve. He threw just 16 curves -- a 14% rate, his lowest since April 9 -- and stymied Tigers hitters with 38 changeups (33%), far and away the most he’s used the pitch this season.
“That was part of my plan, just mix a lot of my pitches,” Valdez said through interpreter Jenloy Herrera. “Mix them up, mix them around, try not to get predictable and just throw sinker, sinker, sinker -- just try to mix them all around.”
Valdez put together what was easily his best start since his no-hitter and a welcome escape from a tough stretch: In the three starts after the no-hitter, he was bitten by the long ball, allowing five home runs and pitching to a 6.86 ERA.
But after seven innings, it was clear to both Valdez and his manager that his night was done. Valdez seemed to tire in the seventh, walking Zack Short and falling behind Javier Báez 2-0 with one out, but after a well-timed visit from catcher Martín Maldonado, he regrouped, and with the last of his firepower, struck out Báez and Parker Meadows to end the threat.
“We couldn’t take him any further than we’d taken him,” Baker said. “He would have had to go 140 pitches to complete that, and we weren’t going to take a chance on that. Man, that was tough.”
Bryan Abreu entered for the eighth and allowed Detroit’s first hit of the night on a sharp grounder to right from Kerry Carpenter. Abreu quickly coaxed Spencer Torkelson to ground into a double play, helping Houston hang onto a 1-0 lead, but the no-hitter was over.
Ryan Pressly came in for the ninth and seemed poised to earn an easy save, striking out his first two batters looking. But Miguel Cabrera grounded a single up the middle, Zach McKinstry grounded one to right and Báez blooped a broken-bat hit of his own to left-center to tie the game. Up next, the rookie Meadows swung at a 2-1 curve on the inside corner from Pressly and launched it over the right-field fence for his first career homer.
The Astros left the field and the Tigers celebrated as Friday Night Fireworks went off in center field. Within a few minutes, the mood around Houston had transformed dramatically: The club had gone from the verge of a historic no-hitter, to the verge of a 1-0 win to, suddenly, a team that had lost two consecutive games while scoring just one run in each of them.
“Sometimes, you’ve got to beat them 1-0,” Baker said.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Valdez became the fifth pitcher in the expansion era (since 1961) to throw both a no-hitter and another no-hit bid of at least seven innings in the same calendar month. He joined Steve Barber (1967), Vida Blue (‘70), Nolan Ryan (‘73) and Derek Lowe (2002).
“He made the pitches, he was throwing ground balls, we played good defense,” Baker said. “They just got us at the end.”
For an Astros bullpen that has been heavily taxed and still has five games before its next day off, Valdez’s start, while it didn’t translate into a win, couldn’t have come at a better time.
“He saved our bullpen. … Our bullpen is in much better shape than it was when we left home,” Baker said. “Boy, that was tough. That was real tough.”