HOUSTON -- The Astros continue to show that they may have one of the most potent 1-2 punches on the mound as any team in the Majors. After Justin Verlander flirted with another no-hit bid in Tuesday's series opener, Framber Valdez followed that effort on Wednesday night with his 21st consecutive quality start, allowing one run on two hits and striking out eight across seven innings in Houston's 5-3 win over the Twins at Minute Maid Park.
In doing so, Valdez set an Astros franchise record for consecutive quality starts, passing Mike Scott in 1986.
“I was thinking about the record,” Valdez admitted in Spanish. "I think if you are one of the people who do not think about things like that, maybe you have doubts. I just worked through it and did my job.”
The Astros (80-45) have already enjoyed a lot of success this season, with Wednesday's win securing a franchise-best mark through the first 125 games of any campaign, besting the 2019 club that started 79-46. The club sits atop the American League West standings, holding a commanding 12 1/2 game lead over Seattle. In previous years, the Astros’ success started with its offense -- but this season it leans more on their pitching, especially a starting staff that leads the AL in ERA (3.08), opponents' average (.214) and WHIP (1.07).
It starts at the top of the rotation, as Verlander continues to put up AL Cy Young-caliber stats, leading the AL in wins (16), ERA (1.87) and WHIP (0.85). But one also has to take note of the work Valdez is doing, especially in his recent stretch.
Valdez (13-4 overall) is 12-3 with a 2.37 ERA and 1.08 WHIP during the streak of 21 consecutive quality starts, which is the longest streak in the Major Leagues this year. In that span, he’s thrown two complete games and tossed at least seven innings 10 times.
The durability and strength that Valdez has exhibited has propelled him to another level.
“He's as strong as [boxing legend] Jack Johnson,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. "This dude is strong physically and is getting there mentally. He’s built like a running back and could be a lot of things. He’s strong, works hard and he’s a man.”
That man broke Houston's previous franchise record of 20 straight quality starts, and in doing so became the fifth pitcher since 2000 to record 21 consecutive quality starts. He joined an exclusive list: Jacob deGrom (who recorded 26 consecutive quality starts from 2018-19 for the Mets), Jake Arrieta (24 from 2015-16 for the Cubs), Chris Carpenter (22 in 2005 for the Cardinals) and Johan Santana (21 in 2004 for the Twins).
Valdez’s key to success has been not straying away from what has been working in his outings dating back to April 25.
“I don’t think I’ve changed since then,” Valdez said in Spanish. "I have always maintained a mentality to throw a good game and do everything right. Each time I go out there, I want to do a good job for my team. Since that day, I have stayed focused, and look to keep it going.”
Valdez has also not moved away from what he has done his whole career: generate ground balls. Entering Wednesday, the pitcher had a 66.5 percent ground ball percentage, which ranks as the highest percentage in the Majors since the start of the 2018 season (minimum 400 innings).
It comes as no shock that the Dominican hurler continued that on Wednesday, generating nine of his 21 outs through grounders. The ability to generate weaker contact pairs well with his command, which fully utilizes his arsenal of pitches: curveball, fastball, sinker, changeup and cutter.
Valdez leaned on his sinker, throwing it 60% of the time against the Twins, but the ability to mix in pitches is what generated the 11 whiffs (swings-and-misses) that led to his eight strikeouts.
“I’ve been trying to use all my pitches this year,” Valdez said. “I’ve been trying to mix things up to confuse the hitters a little bit.”
Valdez's emergence has been noticed by former teammate Carlos Correa, whose Twins were on the wrong end of the lefty's latest gem.
"Special, special," said Correa of Valdez. "He’s become the pitcher we all thought he could become. I’m very happy with his success. ... He always had the stuff and he has the heart. He’s an ace. He’s an ace, that's for sure."
All those elements have led to success, shaping what has been an impressive first All-Star campaign for Valdez, who has a 2.65 ERA and 142 strikeouts in 156 innings.
The 28-year-old continues to be an integral part of the starting rotation that will face questions if the decision is made to adopt a five-man rotation -- something Baker mentioned before Tuesday’s game -- or move to a six-man rotation.
One thing, though, will not change: Valdez will go out there and shove, continuing to make you sorry if you don’t believe in him -- as his T-shirt read in Spanish postgame.