Valdez picks up weary Astros, beats Rangers

May 20th, 2022

HOUSTON --  has been a workhorse on the Astros’ pitching staff for several years, so lasting six or seven innings with minimal damage isn’t something that is always notable, or needing a special mention.

But Valdez doing the same old, same old in the series opener with the Rangers on Thursday could not have arrived at a better time, and it could have a carryover effect that might give the Astros a boost through the remainder of the current home stretch. Consider the circumstances around their 5-1 win over the Rangers on Star Wars Night at Minute Maid Park, the first of seven games on this homestand:

• The Astros landed in Houston after 3 a.m. Thursday, following a night game in Boston and a nearly four-hour flight home.

• The late arrival prompted manager Dusty Baker to rest two veterans -- Michael Brantley and Yuli Gurriel -- meaning the Astros’ lineup would be a little thinner, with less of a margin of error than they were accustomed to.

• The bullpen threw 11 innings in the Red Sox series and, while not completely taxed, is being tested during a current stretch of 16 games in a row before their next off-day in a week.

So while it wasn’t imperative that Valdez shoved in this game, it was helpful -- and the Astros will take it.

“For sure,” Baker said, noting that Valdez flew home ahead of the team on Wednesday. “Framber has very few short outings. It was kind of in the hands of the starting pitcher to carry us. These guys are operating on fumes, a lot of games in a short period of time. I asked guys if they got into bed at 4 o’clock like me. Some said 4, some said 4:30.”

Offensively, for most of this game, the Astros indeed looked like a team that landed in the wee hours and were missing a couple of stalwarts in the lineup. They played with a razor-thin one-run margin before Martín Maldonado blew it open in the eighth with a bases-loaded -- and clearing -- double.

Valdez, working on a virtual tightrope for most of his 96-pitch outing, had few issues after a shaky first inning. With his signature curveball that played perfectly off a cutter and four-seamer averaging 95 mph, the left-hander produced a typical performance -- seven strikeouts and nine ground-ball outs, and hitters managed just five hard-hit balls.

That’s in sync with his prior outings: Entering this game, Valdez led the Majors with one barrel allowed all season (defined as a batted ball with a perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle). He also started his day Thursday with opponents slugging .284 against him.

There are no stats available for how effective pitchers are when their teammates slept four hours the night before, but it’s safe to say that at least in present times, Valdez has a handle on those numbers as well.

“I feel very good because I gave the team a chance to rest those who did not play tonight,” Valdez said. “I feel very positive about the game and I know there are players that are not here. For those who are, I try to help them out every inning. In every game I enter I focus on having good results every time I am out there to pitch.”

Baker’s decision to send Valdez back out for the seventh -- 84 pitches into his outing -- was based partly on how the lefty was throwing, and partly on Baker’s desire to stay away from most of his middle-to-late inning relievers, who were stretched a bit in Boston.

“He was probably throwing harder in the seventh inning than any other time in the game,” Baker said. “He emptied the tank. He wanted that victory bad.”

Valdez yielded a leadoff hit to Andy Ibáñez, but the 12-pitch inning ended uneventfully with a Marcus Semien infield popup.

“He was throwing strikes, attacking the strike zone,” Maldonado said. “He got early outs because of the way his two-seamer worked. We expect that out of him. Every time he’s out there we expect him to go deep in the game.”