BOSTON -- The mental side of Astros pitcher Framber Valdez's game has been the primary reason he has made the transformation from a fledgling Major Leaguer who struggled with his control in 2018 and ’19 to one of the most productive left-handers in the game the last two seasons.
Valdez’s work following the ’19 season with psychologist Andy Nunez in his native Dominican Republic helped him focus on the mound and slow the game down. So when the Astros were batting around in the sixth inning of Game 5 of the American League Championship Series on Wednesday night at Fenway Park, Valdez closed his eyes and did some meditation in the dugout to clear his mind.
“I hit a reset button by letting go of whatever happened the inning prior to that, and after I do that, I focus on what batters are coming next,” Valdez said. “Visualizing myself and what I want to do.”
Few others could have visualized Valdez being able to put the Astros on his broad shoulders and lead them to a 9-1 win over the Red Sox in Game 5 of the ALCS with a masterful performance. Houston returns home for Game 6 tonight needing one win to reach the World Series for the third time in five seasons.
“Like I said before the game, everybody talks about momentum, but momentum is controlled by the pitcher,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said.
Relying on his sinker and curveball, Valdez threw eight innings, allowing three hits and one walk with five strikeouts in one of the Astros’ best outings of the season. Houston starting pitchers had thrown just a combined 6 2/3 innings in the first four games of the ALCS, including 2 2/3 innings by Valdez in Game 1.
“I had a really ugly outing and I felt humiliated after that first outing,” he said. “I set my mind on not letting it happen again. I did everything I could, worked as hard as I possibly could to come back and have success in this outing, because I didn’t want something like that to happen again. I was dead set on turning it around.”
In postseason series with the current 2-3-2 format that have been tied 2-2, teams winning Game 5 on the road before going back home for Games 6 and 7 have finished off the series win 18 of 23 times (78 percent). This excludes 2020, when the LCS and World Series were played at neutral sites.
“You can feel confident all you want to, but those guys are going to fight you until the end,” Baker said.
Yordan Alvarez led the way offensively, going 3-for-5 with a solo homer in the second inning off Chris Sale and a two-run double in the Astros’ five-run sixth that helped them open a 6-0 lead. Houston had scored 15 unanswered runs in the series before a seventh-inning homer by Rafael Devers got Boston on the board.
“We just needed to stay focused,” said first baseman Yuli Gurriel, who matched Alvarez by going 3-for-5 with three RBIs. “We just needed to focus on the job we needed to do and just take it one game at a time.”
Valdez didn’t allow a baserunner -- or a ball hit out of the infield -- until Devers led off the fifth inning with a single. He hit J.D. Martinez with the next pitch, prompting Baker to make an unusual trip to the mound to check on his left-hander.
“I call him Framboso,” Baker said. “I said, ‘Man, you're the best. Man, just be natural and just do your thing.’”
Valdez thought Baker might have come to take him out.
“It was surprising more than anything,” Valdez said. “Usually the pitching coach comes out to talk to me first and Dusty comes out to take me out of the game. The first thing I did was look back to the bullpen to see if anybody was out there. He came out and told me to breathe. You can’t let a [hit-by-pitch] and a hit take you out of your confidence.”
Valdez, who led the Majors in ground-ball rate in the regular season, promptly got Hunter Renfroe to hit into the first of his two double plays. Valdez worked a 1-2-3 eighth and finished with 13 groundouts and two flyouts. Of the 20 batted balls against him, 13 had a negative launch angle and 12 had an expected batting average of .160 or lower (based on quality of contact).
“I think their guy was amazing,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said. “He was throwing harder than usual. The ball was moving. We didn't hit the ball hard at all. I think we had two fly balls, if I'm not mistaken, and a home run, right? Credit to him. His sinker was unreal tonight. Unreal. You tip your hat to him and you move forward.”