Valdez throws Rays a curve (a lot of them)

October 17th, 2020

has been baffling opponents with his curveball the entirety of the 2020 season. That relentless ability might just be the reason the Astros head to that other city in Texas next week.

The Rays have had three chances to finish off the Astros and punch their ticket for the neutral-site World Series at Globe Life Field in Arlington. They’ve fallen short each time, for different reasons. On Friday it was Valdez’s not-so-secret weapon -- a curveball that opponents have to know is coming, and yet they still can’t do anything with it.

The left-hander also was able to shake off a brief but bizarre exchange with Rays slugger Yandy Díaz in the sixth inning that threatened to derail his outing. Instead, with the encouragement of teammates, Valdez plowed through, and the Astros never lost control in a 7-4 victory in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.

“You can never trust any kind of lead in baseball,” Valdez said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re up five or six runs. The ball is round, but it has lines in it. Anything can happen. Weird things can happen. You’ve just got to stay focused.”

With Hunter Renfroe on first and one out in the sixth, Díaz seemed agitated when he drew a walk off Valdez. It was a puzzling reaction, given Díaz had just succeeded where many of his teammates had not -- taking ball four off a Valdez curveball.

Díaz took a slight step toward the mound and hurled some angry words toward Valdez. Díaz was quickly intercepted by catcher Martín Maldonado, who assumed the role of peacemaker, putting his hand on Díaz’s shoulder and saying in Spanish, “It’s OK, nothing happened, nothing happened.”

That’s where the altercation ended. Díaz took his base, and shortstop Carlos Correa, sensing that the brief outburst may have rattled his pitcher, stepped in as the un-rattler. He stomped over to Valdez and, inches from his face, delivered a stern talking-to in an effort to ensure Valdez did not lose his focus.

He didn’t.

“We had a nice conversation,” Correa said with a slight grin. “I said, ‘Your job is not to go out there and be the bigger man. Your job is to help us win this ballgame. And you're not going to help us win this ballgame if you're distracted about what just happened. So you just focus, get a ground ball, double play, let's get out of the inning.’”


Valdez completed a six-pitch sequence to Brandon Lowe with a 95 mph sinker and got the ground ball he needed. The 4-6-3 double play ended the inning, and Valdez huffed and puffed his way back to the dugout while enjoying a couple of Correa chest bumps into his back.

Correa said he didn’t notice any jawing between the players before this, and chalked up the excitement to “Latin chemistry” and opposing players possibly taking exception to Valdez’s impish demeanor when he pitches. Valdez smiles a lot, something not often seen on a big league mound.

“Framber loves to have fun and he's always smiling, and I guess they don't like him smiling at them when they take a good pitch,” Correa said. “I guess when he strikes them out, he probably smiles. So they probably don't like that. It's baseball. It's the playoffs. There's always competition. Somebody's trying to beat the other guy. It's just emotions, nothing more than that.”

Said Valdez: “I've always had that habit in the game. It’s my way of staying loose, my way of having fun out there on the mound and not getting too tight. I think the batter can take that personally. They think it’s directed at them. It’s not at all like that.”

Smiling isn’t Valdez’s only habit. Strikeouts are, too, and he had a bunch of them -- nine -- in this win. He induced 15 swings and misses on his curveball -- the most swinging strikes on that particular pitch in a postseason game since MLB began pitch tracking in 2008. Valdez also finished with eight curveball strikeouts, the second most in a postseason game, behind only Adam Wainwright’s nine in the 2012 NL Division Series.

“I don’t think it was a different quality, necessarily, of the curveball,” Valdez said. “But what’s bigger for me is the consistency of it, to be able to throw it the same way I want to every time and not get crazy with my throwing motion.”

The best-of-seven series is now even, and if there’s such a thing as momentum, this is a good time for the Astros to start believing in it. They have roared back. A rested Lance McCullers Jr. is teed up for the grand finale. Who could blame the Astros for liking their chances?

“We want to keep playing baseball, and we don't want it to be the end of our season,” Correa said. “We took care of these three games, and now we’ve got to take care of one more. If we don't win that game, then it's all meant nothing. We've got to go out there tomorrow and get that win.”