AL runs through Houston: Astros clinch league's top seed

Valdez struggles in second straight outing, but Baker not concerned heading into playoffs

October 1st, 2022

HOUSTON -- The Astros’ playoff picture is set, but they showed that there are some things to fine-tune before the postseason starts, such as the mechanics of Framber Valdez, who struggled in the Astros’ 7-3 loss to the Rays on Friday night at Minute Maid Park.

Despite the loss, Houston secured the top seed in the American League and home-field advantage through the American League Championship Series with the Yankees' loss to the Orioles. The Astros ensured the road to the World Series will go through Minute Maid Park, where they are 51-25 this season.

It's the third time in franchise history Houston will finish with the top record in its league, and the Astros will hold home-field advantage in the AL for the first time since 2019.

“It’s big and what we were hoping and playing for,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “We didn’t know we were going to get it [despite a loss], but we’ll take it any way you can get it. I hope it comes out to our advantage, having the best record [in the AL] and hosting most of the games at home.”

Before the Astros can plan for the postseason, some players will look to get on the right track before then, including Valdez. His streak of consecutive quality starts was snapped on Saturday at 25 after allowing four earned runs on 11 hits in 5 1/3 innings against the Orioles.

Valdez’s issues carried over on Friday, as he surrendered six earned runs on nine hits in 5 1/3 innings against the Rays.

“Framber wasn’t as sharp as he usually is,” Baker said. “The last start might have been poor for his standards. He didn’t have his breaking ball tonight ... and [he] threw more fastballs.”

Valdez's struggles in his past two starts came down to the same factors: lack of command and location. The lefty had issues with his curveball, which he threw 15 percent of the time on Friday, as it wasn't breaking the way he hoped.

Valdez’s other pitches were located better but still did not land where he hoped. The southpaw usually dominates by generating soft contact -- entering Friday with a career 66.2 ground-ball percentage -- but he was unable to settle into a groove against the Rays.

“I didn’t throw the pitches the way I wanted to or where I wanted them,” Valdez said in Spanish. “Also, I ended the outing in a bad fashion.”

It is easy to start panicking when Valdez -- who has given the Astros a chance to win in almost every start this year -- has begun showing signs of struggles in his recent starts, but it’s important to remember what he has done this season. 

Valdez set a new AL/NL record with 25 consecutive quality starts in a single season. But that was only part of what has put him in the conversation for the AL Cy Young Award, as he is tied for second in wins (16) and ranks second in innings pitched (196 1/3) and sixth in ERA (2.89) among qualified AL starters.

Valdez has been part of a formidable 1-2 punch with Justin Verlander in a starting staff that leads the AL in ERA (3.02). The starters have been a big reason behind the Astros’ success, and the club will continue to lean on them in October. And despite Valdez's back-to-back outings in which he hasn't pitched like his usual self, Baker doesn't "have any concerns about him."

The Astros' opponent is the only mystery left, as they will face either the Rays, Mariners or Blue Jays in the AL Division Series. As the No. 1 seed, Houston will play the winner of the AL Wild Card Series between the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds. But that doesn't mean the team plans on pumping the brakes as the regular season winds down.

“These guys got something to play for, and we want to finish strong,” Baker said. “We want our guys to play effectively, so you’ve still got to play.”