'Calm and focused' Valdez beats Ohtani again

June 3rd, 2023

HOUSTON -- Astros ace admitted he gets excited when he has to oppose Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani. The same probably can’t be said for Ohtani about facing Valdez, who outdueled him Friday night for the second time in less than a month.

Valdez picked up his fourth consecutive victory by throwing seven scoreless innings, allowing five hits while striking out seven batters, to beat Ohtani and the Angels, 6-2, on Friday night at Minute Maid Park. Both of Ohtani’s losses this season have come against Valdez, who threw eight innings of one-run ball on May 9 in Anaheim.

“I definitely get excited sometimes pitching against Ohtani,” Valdez said. “Obviously, he’s probably the best player in the league right now -- the MVP. But whenever I go up there, I see it as, I’m pitching against his teammates, and my teammates are the ones that also help me beat him, as well. Not try to focus on the way he’s pitching. He’s just like me, trying to go out there and throw strikes and throw it over the middle of the plate and get outs as well. Thankfully, today our guys were able to get him.”

blasted a two-run homer off Ohtani in the first inning, making him the first Major League player to reach 50 RBIs this season. added a two-run homer in the sixth to put the Astros ahead, 5-0. Ohtani (5-2) gave up five runs and struck out six batters in six innings.

“It started off with Alvarez, then he was getting tired at the end and he hung a pitch on Julks,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “That was most of our runs. How we got to him? Nobody gets to him too much. We were fortunate to not miss pitches when we had an opportunity to hit him.”

The homer by Alvarez was the first in his career against Ohtani. Seven of his team-high 15 homers this year have given the Astros the lead.

“He’s a horse out there, and when he steps in the batter’s box he should be feared,” Valdez said. “The pitchers that go up to the batter’s box know who he is, and it really hasn’t surprised me what he’s been doing since the beginning of the season. He’s a really good hitter.”

Valdez (6-4) proved to be an escape artist on Friday, striking out Ohtani and Mike Trout to end the third and stranding a pair of runners. He got a key double play to end the fourth after giving up two singles to start the inning. And to finish off the seventh, he picked up an inning-ending, bases-loaded double play on a sinker.

“He was awesome, and he got out of trouble with those double-play balls like he usually does, and that saved his pitch count some,” Baker said. “You could tell it was hot in there. Framber was sweating, Ohtani was sweating. Both of them were a little gassed.”

In his past five outings starting with a win against the Angels on May 9, Valdez is 4-0 with a 1.59 ERA and 0.85 WHIP, with the Astros going 5-0 in the span. In his last three starts, Valdez is 3-0 with a 0.41 ERA and 0.77 WHIP, allowing one earned run in 22 innings with 19 strikeouts and four walks.

“Back in my day, we say get the ball down, and when guys swung through pitches up, we didn’t understand why,” Angels manager Phil Nevin said. “But with technology now, we know [Valdez’s sinker] has ride and it looks like it’s in a certain spot, but it’s not. It’s a really tough pitch to hit, obviously.”

Valdez entered Friday with a career 65.9 percent ground-ball percentage, which is the highest in the Majors since 2018 (minimum 300 innings), so when he got three fly ball outs in the first inning, it raised eyebrows. Soon, though, it was back to vintage Valdez, who didn’t get one more flyout the rest of the game.

Valdez said his 96.4 mph sinker to get Chad Wallach to ground into a 6-4-3 double play on his 92nd and final pitch of the night was perhaps his best of the game. Maybe that’s why he walked off the mound with a huge smile on his face. Beating Ohtani again didn’t hurt, either.

“I felt very good today,” he said. “I felt calm and focused.”