Framber aims to keep rhythm flowing in ALCS G2 start

October 20th, 2022

HOUSTON -- Among the more popular batting practice T-shirts that the Astros are wearing lately looks more like one recognizing a concert tour for a high-octane metal band. But this is a band of one.

Adorned on the front are three images of Framber Valdez in burnt orange and on the back the list of the MLB-record 25 straight quality starts that he recorded, with a venue and date name for each. About midway up reads “New York,” recognizing his June 23 outing at Yankee Stadium, where he stymied the Bronx Bombers over six innings with just two hits allowed.

If the All-Star lefty can replicate those results on Thursday, Houston will secure a 2-0 series lead after the Astros rode Justin Verlander's 11-K start and a trio of solo homers to a Game 1 4-2 win. Valdez will start Game 2 of the American League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park opposite Yankees righty Luis Severino, a decision with the immediate and longer-term in mind. Friday marks the final off-day in this best-of-seven round, meaning that Valdez could be the likeliest candidate to pitch on short rest, if needed.

Astros manager Dusty Baker indicated that Verlander (Tommy John surgery) and Lance McCullers Jr. (right flexor tendon), who is in line for Game 3, would likely not be short-rest options this postseason due to this being their first year back from their respective injuries.

“I'm just hoping we don't have to come back and make that decision because both have a history of coming off of operations,” Baker said. “So you would rather not jeopardize those guys' careers if you can help it. ... Framber has been throwing well the whole year, so we thought that that was the best sequence of pitchers.”

It’s the same rotation order, so far, that Houston rolled out in the AL Division Series against Seattle, during which Valdez threw 5 2/3 innings and exited with a bases-loaded jam that Hector Neris bailed him out of in Game 2. McCullers then shut down the Mariners with six shutout innings in the series-clinching Game 3.

Cristian Javier, who would’ve pitched ALDS Game 4, will certainly be in play in this round, too; same for Luis Garcia, who tossed five shutout innings of relief in the 18-inning marathon in Seattle, and José Urquidy. The depth of Houston’s rotation should be a huge advantage, especially without the travel day between Games 5 and 6, if those are necessary.

If short rest isn’t in play, Valdez would be in line to return for Game 7, and McCullers -- who hasn’t officially been announced -- would only start Game 3 when the series shifts to New York.

“They're a really good team, but then again, we just need to continue doing the same thing we have been doing all season that got us here,” Valdez said through an interpreter. “Continue the same rhythm that we had against them in the regular season and the same rhythm against whatever team we end up playing in the World Series.”

The matchup between Valdez and the righty-loaded Yankees should be an intriguing one, especially given that New York boasts a bevy of high-powered bats -- yet only Anthony Rizzo and Matt Carpenter are left-handed.

Valdez was far more effective against lefties during the regular season, holding them to a .192/.274/.231 (.505 OPS) slash line, but he was still quite effective against righties, with a .229/.300/.320 (.621 OPS) clip in more than four times as many plate appearances.

“I think a lot of people say that it is a little bit tougher to pitch against right-handed batters, but I think I faced more righties this year than I did lefties,” Valdez said. “I think my plan of attack is again just to continue doing the same thing I did in the regular season. Trust my pitches, continue attacking them in the zone, continue with my command and I think we'll get good results.”

Valdez’s speciality is eliciting weak contact by commanding the bottom part of the zone, specifically with his sinker/curveball combo that led to a 66.5% ground-ball rate, by far MLB’s highest. His curve has also been one of MLB’s best swing-and-miss pitches, with a 45.5% whiff rate and 126 strikeouts, the league’s most on any curve. That said, the Yanks hit breaking balls .241 and slugged them .426, fourth best.

All that is to say is that Game 2 pits one of the better lefty spin specialists against one of the elite righty slugging teams.