Valdez gives life to 'tired' Astros in relief

August 3rd, 2020

Alex Bregman came up with the game-winning hit and reliever Blake Taylor pitched out of a pair of bases-loaded jams in extra innings for his first career victory, but the Astros’ 6-5 win over the Angels in 11 innings Sunday at Angel Stadium belonged to lefty .

Valdez, who has bounced between the rotation and bullpen the last two seasons, held the Angels to one run and five hits while striking out eight batters in 6 1/3 innings out of the bullpen. The longest relief outing by an Astros pitcher in more than 25 years saved Houston’s injury-depleted bullpen and gave hope for Valdez’s role as a starter moving forward.

Behind the extended outing by Valdez -- the longest by an Astros pitcher in relief since Shane Reynolds in 1994 and longest by a lefty reliever since Jim Crawford (8 1/3 innings) in 1975 -- Houston took two of three on the road and overcame a 2-for-17 performance with runners in scoring position.

“We needed this game very badly,” said manager Dusty Baker, whose team lost in 10 innings on Saturday. “[There is] a lot of difference between 5-4 and 4-5. We certainly didn’t want to go below .500. It was a great game for us. We got some key hits out there. Boy, we’re all tired. We need a day off tomorrow.”

The Astros will be able to use Monday’s scheduled off-day, coupled with Valdez’s performance, to rest a bullpen that has been decimated by injuries. Houston has 10 rookies in the bullpen, including seven relievers that have made their debuts this year. And when starter Josh James lasted only three innings Sunday while waking six batters and giving up a grand slam to Albert Pujols for an early 4-2 deficit, it seemed like Baker’s short-handed staff was doomed.

Enter Valdez, who was scheduled to make his second start of the season Tuesday in Arizona. What he did instead was much more valuable. The lefty pitched around five hits and didn’t allow a walk until the first batter he faced in the ninth -- his sixth inning of work. Valdez threw 86 pitches and was pulled shortly after the Angels tied the game in the 10th on an RBI single by Michael Hermosillo.

“This guy is really strong,” Baker said. “He was our best option out on the mound and our freshest. Even though he had 80-something pitches [in his start Wednesday against the Dodgers], he was strong. We were maybe going to stay away from Taylor today.”

No such luck. Taylor, one of Baker’s large contingent of rookies, struck out Matt Thaiss to strand the bases loaded in the 10th and got Brian Goodwin to fly out to end the game, leaving the bases loaded again in the 11th.

“When the phone ran and they said, ‘You’re in,’ I said, ‘All right, let’s go out there and continue doing what I’m doing,’” said Taylor, who hasn’t allowed a run in his first five big league appearances (7 2/3 innings). “They put the ball in play and don’t strike out, so I said, ‘Let’s not go for strikeouts. Let’s get a groundout or a popout.”

Valdez will return to the rotation next weekend with a chance to stick as a starter. The Astros are without starters Justin Verlander and José Urquidy, and James has walked 11 batters in six innings in his first two starts, putting his starting future in peril. No matter what’s next, Valdez showed Sunday he’s ready.

“I already feel like a starter on this team,” Valdez said. “I think what I did today, for me, was proof I can fill a couple of different roles. It doesn’t really matter. I can be a help to this team and this stuff, but I’ve prepared myself and I feel like I’ve done all the work to be a starter and I’ve been focused on that since the get-go.”