HOUSTON -- The return of left-handed starter Framber Valdez, a solid night at the plate from rookie outfielder Chas McCormick and solid relief work from Cristian Javier weren’t what Astros manager Dusty Baker had on his mind immediately after a 10-3 loss in 11 innings to the Padres on Friday night at Minute Maid Park.
After stranding the bases loaded in the 10th inning, the Astros couldn’t contain the Padres, who sent 10 batters to the plate in the 11th and scored seven times to send Houston to its fifth loss in its last six games. Baker’s weary bullpen was pushed to the limit again, with the Astros going 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position.
“Right now, everybody is in pain because we knew we had an opportunity to win that game,” Baker said.
Here’s a closer look at two key developments in Friday’s loss:
Valdez is back and healthy
Valdez, who put it all together last year and was Houston’s most consistent starting pitcher, made his 2021 debut after breaking his left ring finger in his first start of the spring on March 2. He threw 72 pitches in four innings, allowing one run, two hits and two walks while striking out four batters.
“He made some quality pitches like Framber can, but he was wild high, which Framber is not,” Baker said. “Maybe it was the excitement of this being his Opening Day. Him being wild high isn’t indicative of how he was throwing. I’m sure he’s going to get better and better as the season goes on. We’re lucky to have him back, period, because we didn’t know if, or when, we were going to have him back at all.”
Valdez relied heavily on his sinker-curveball combination, which accounted for 58 of his pitches thrown. His velocity was down a tad over last year, but that’s not surprising considering that he had been out for nearly three months.
“I did have a pitch limit tonight being my first outing, and I think I was right up against that limit on the mound and I felt like I did a good job,” Valdez said. “I was trying to find my balance on the mound and the balance to be able to execute all my pitches. I think I did pretty well with my limit and was able to get [through] the fourth inning.”
Valdez was a workhorse starter last year -- he threw 94 2/3 innings across 15 games (13 starts) -- and he hopes to be able to pitch deeper into games once he gets his arm strength built back up.
“It was a good first outing back and I have some things to build on,” he said. “I just need to get finer with all the pitches as I move forward.”
McCormick takes advantage of playing time
The Astros figure to get a long look at McCormick, a rookie outfielder, in the next week after they placed starting left fielder Michael Brantley on the injured list prior to Friday’s game. McCormick went 1-for-3 with a two-run homer, a walk and a sac fly. He has a .734 OPS, four homers and 16 RBIs in 48 at-bats this year.
“It’s important to take advantage of this,” McCormick said. “Obviously, it stinks that Brantley is on the IL, but that’s what guys like me are for. I’ve got to be prepared every single day. … It’s probably better now for [Brantley] to rest up and finish strong at the end of the season, but for me, it’s a cool opportunity and I’m excited.”
If McCormick continues to make a strong impression, he could find himself pushing for more playing time in center field when Brantley comes back. Baker remains committed to Myles Straw in center. Straw is slashing .302/.351/.340 in his last 14 games, but McCormick brings a power element that Straw doesn’t have.
That was on display in the fourth when he rocketed a two-run homer to left off San Diego starter Dinelson Lamet to give the Astros a 2-1 lead. The Padres intentionally walked Carlos Correa in the fifth to face McCormick, who struck out. They walked Correa again in the seventh -- with runners at first and second -- and McCormick nearly made them pay. He sent a long fly ball to right that was caught at the wall by Wil Myers, perhaps robbing him of a grand slam.
“Smart move. Correa is an All-Star,” McCormick said. “I understand I’m a rookie. That fires me up. I was excited to take the challenge, excited for the opportunity. I wish my grand slam came through, but it’s alright. I think it kind of brings a little more fire to me. I like it.”