HOUSTON -- A high chopper off the plate by Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton in the fourth inning Thursday night had Framber Valdez on the brink of disaster. Instead of fielding the ball and turning a double play to clear the bases, Valdez committed a pair of errors that put runners at second and third with no outs. Momentum in the American League Championship Series was on the line.
This was the point in the game a few years ago that Valdez would have crumbled under the pressure of the moment and the stage. Even so, third baseman Alex Bregman and catcher Martín Maldonado paid a quick visit to the mound, offering up some sage advice to the left-hander.
“We have a three-run lead and don’t try to do too much,” Maldonado told him.
“Actually, when we got to the mound, Framber was just ready to continue to compete,” Bregman said. “We just said, ‘Let's not let this be a big inning, let's just continue to execute pitches and do exactly what you do.’ He did a great job.”
Valdez didn’t allow an earned run or a walk in seven innings and struck out nine batters in one of the best starts of his postseason career. Houston’s relentless bullpen took it from there, with Bryan Abreu and Ryan Pressly securing the final six outs. With that, the Astros (5-0) took a 2-0 series lead and remained unbeaten in the postseason.
“You always worry about a young player being able to shake off something like that, but Maldy, the guys on the team, they told him, ‘Hey, forget it. We still got the lead. Go out and pitch,’” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “He might have shut 'em out had he not had his own miscues.”
After the game, Valdez admitted his fourth-inning fielding errors -- he fielded Stanton’s grounder, dropped it while looking at second base and then threw wild past first base -- would have doomed him a few years ago.
“To be quite honest, I think back in 2019 I probably would have been done with the game,” he said. “I probably would have lost all focus there at that moment. But those are all things that we work on and just continue working hard to be able to focus better and get better in the game.”
In all best-of-seven postseason series, teams taking a 2-0 lead have gone on to win the series 74 of 88 times (84%). Only one team in the previous 17 postseasons rallied from a 2-0 deficit: the 2020 Dodgers against the Braves in the NLCS. In the current 2-3-2 format, teams going ahead 2-0 in their home ballpark have won 43 of 53 times (81%).
Valdez’s curveball was terrific. He generated 25 swings-and-misses, which was the third-most in a postseason game in the pitch-tracking era (since 2008). Sixteen of those whiffs came on the curveball, which is the most in a postseason game in the pitch-tracking era.
Maldonado said Valdez may have been “babying” his curveball early with the wind blowing on a rare open-roof night at Minute Maid Park. Valdez said he wasn’t fully warmed up.
“The roof was open. It's something that we're not used to playing with usually here,” Valdez said. “But I think after that inning I was able to warm up properly. And then the curveball got a lot better from the third through seventh inning. But those are all adjustments that we make in the middle of the game, and thankfully it did it.”
The Astros have held the Yankees to nine hits and four runs in the first two games of the ALCS, striking them out a whopping 30 times. Just like Justin Verlander did in Game 1, Valdez overcame a wobbly start in the early innings and settled in to dominate Game 2.
“I thought he got into a really good rhythm there in kind of the middle innings and really started landing his curveball exactly how he wanted to, to go with his sinker,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “We just weren't able to mount enough.”