ANAHEIM -- Astros left-hander Framber Valdez had retired 15 batters in a row while taking a shutout in the seventh inning, which was set to be his final inning of work Thursday night in his first Opening Day start. He was slated to face Mike Trout, so the drama was building.
Trout reached on a throwing error by rookie shortstop Jeremy Peña, waking up the crowd at Angel Stadium and putting Valdez in a tough spot. A mound visit from veteran catcher Martín Maldonado helped to settle down the lefty, who got Anthony Rendon to hit into a double play to wipe the bases clean.
Valdez left the game after an infield single by Matt Duffy, but threw 6 2/3 scoreless innings, striking out six batters and allowing one walk and two singles, to lead the Astros to their record-tying 10th consecutive Opening Day win, 3-1, over the Angels and Shohei Ohtani.
“I calmed him down,” Maldonado said of the mound visit. “That’s a guy that in the past for years and years he gets a little emotional. I tried to go out there and calm him down and say, ‘Hey, get another ground ball and get a double play. Just focus on making pitches.’”
While Ohtani -- the reigning American League Most Valuable Player -- dominated the preseason buzz heading into 2022, Valdez stole the stage Thursday. He attacked the zone and threw 54 of 84 pitches for strikes, relying mostly on his sinker, which he threw 50 percent of the time. That was the pitch he threw to get Rendon to hit into the 4-6-3 double play in the seventh.
“I made adjustments during Spring Training and the biggest thing was attacking the zone, getting ahead in the count and attacking the batters,” he said. “It was a mental change, and that’s what I did.”
The outing was vintage Valdez when he’s at his best, getting steady weak contact and grounders around the infield. He recorded nine ground-ball outs, including double plays in the first and seventh innings, and no flyouts.
“I love playing behind Framber,” said third baseman Alex Bregman, who hit back-to-back solo homers in the eighth with Yordan Alvarez. “He attacks the zone with strikes and gets guys to hit ground balls and keeps the infield on our toes. Our middle [infielders] did an unbelievable job today turning over some double plays. It was fun when he’s on the mound. He’s a competitor.”
The pitch before Rendon hit into a double play in the seventh, Valdez caused a few hearts to sink in the Astros dugout when Rendon walloped a curveball and sent it 387 feet down the left-field line. Instead of a go-ahead homer, the ball curled just outside the foul pole.
“I hung it a little bit and when I saw the ball fly in the air, I got a little bit mad with myself because I knew I didn’t make the best pitch I could,” Valdez said. “That’s why I took a deep breath and threw my best pitch, my sinker, and from there just let whatever happens, happens. If he got a base hit, I threw my best pitch.”
Said manager Dusty Baker: “We were all blowing the ball foul that Rendon hit. Man, we were saying, ‘Go foul! Go foul!’ It barely went foul. That was key, but we thought Framber had enough. We took him as far as we could take him. Like I said, his pitch count was very low. Even in the fifth, compared to Ohtani, Ohtani had 80 pitches under five. That was a good night. That was a real good night. And those home runs came right on time.”
Maldonado summed Valdez up the most succinctly, calling the broad-shouldered southpaw “a beast.”
“He doesn’t think too much,” he said. “He just goes out here and executes pitches and that’s the reason he’s been having success the last three years.”