'Backs to the wall,' Astros turning to Valdez

Left-hander aims to extend Houston's season in Game 5 of World Series

October 31st, 2021

ATLANTA -- The way this World Series has unraveled for Houston, the Jorge Soler leadoff homer off that began this Fall Classic feels like eons ago. Valdez would like to keep it that way.

The Astros are in must-win mode after dropping Game 4 to the Braves, 3-2, on Saturday night at Truist Park, but they wouldn’t have gotten this far if Valdez didn’t have an ability to put past struggles behind him. They need him to do it one more time in order to keep their title hopes alive.

“We've had our backs to the wall before. Our guys know what to do,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “There's not a whole lot to be said. We know what we have to do.”

Valdez bounced back against the Red Sox to turn the American League Championship Series in Houston’s favor, tossing eight innings of one-run ball in Game 5 after giving up three runs, six hits and three walks over 2 2/3 innings in Game 1. He did it last month against the Angels, tossing seven scoreless innings in Anaheim 10 days after giving up five runs in as many innings in Houston. He did it in last year’s ALCS against the Rays, winning Game 6 with a nine-strikeout gem after losing a pitchers’ duel to open the series.

It might as well be second nature to Valdez as he prepares to take the ball for Game 5 on Sunday night at Truist Park. He knows the process, knows how to critique his starts and how to make adjustments. If he can do it one more time, the Astros at least have a chance to send this World Series back to Houston for Game 6.

Valdez will have a lot more pressure on him, but he’s learning how to handle it.

“I just can't get too wrapped up in the bad things that happen in the outing beforehand,” Valdez said through an interpreter. “You acknowledge the bad things that happened and focus on what kind of adjustments you can make, just like I did last time. I'll make those same kind of adjustments, especially staying down in the zone. That's a big one for me that I wanted to focus on.

“You can't pay too much mind to the negative things. You've got to move on to the next page. Just make those little adjustments and be ready to have success in the next outing.”

This is part of the value of the mental approach Valdez has honed the past couple of years with help from a psychologist in his native Dominican Republic. It’s also the value of repetition.

Five times in the past 12 months, including this year’s ALCS and his final four regular-season outings, Valdez has faced the same opponent in back-to-back starts. Four times, he fared better in the rematch, the exception being his regular-season finale against Oakland.

“He takes a lot of pride in his outings. What I love about him is he's able to make those adjustments,” Astros shortstop Carlos Correa said. “You saw it in the series against Boston. It was a masterful performance the second time around. We expect that from him [Sunday], to go out and make the adjustment.”

Valdez’s difference against the Red Sox was command, particularly with his sinker. He threw it around the zone in the ALCS opener, still drawing eight called strikes, but fell behind in counts. The damage he gave up wasn’t crushed, with an average exit velocity of 85 mph, but the singles and walks piled up quickly. The Red Sox actually hit him for a harder exit velocity in their rematch, but they had only a Rafael Devers home run to show for it. Valdez also used his curveball more often with better effectiveness.

Valdez's Game 1 struggles in this Series suggested a similar adjustment is in store. His sinkers were generally down but often too much so to draw swings, let alone soft contact. His sinkers up were crushed, resulting in an average 101.2 mph exit velocity, including Soler’s homer off a 2-0 pitch over the plate after he missed with his first two sinkers. His curveball was feast or famine, drawing six swings and misses but five balls in play with an average 97.9 mph exit velocity.

“I think my mechanics got a little bit out of whack in that last start against these guys,” Valdez said. “Just focus on being 100 percent focused at all times, really work on executing that first strike, get ahead of a lot of these batters and be able to work ahead in the count. Just be focused and locked in mechanically.”

It’s a mature approach for a pitcher still in the early stages of his Major League career, thrust into a front-line role on this staff sooner than expected.

“The thing that I don't think we should lose sight of is Framber has only been in the big leagues a year and a half,” Baker said. “How many guys a year and a half in the big leagues are pitching in the World Series?

“I mean, he's young experience-wise, so with youth, you're going to get some inconsistency of performance. With youth, if you're going good, boom, the world's on fire. If you're going poorly, then it's kind of a downer, and you're still learning how to deal with the downs of this game. It's easy to accept the good times, but it's a learning experience to accept the downers.”