HOUSTON -- Not much came easy for the Astros on their way to winning the American League West, a division they clinched on the final day of the season with a little help from the Mariners. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the defending champions have found themselves in a dogfight in the AL Division Series.
All-Star lefty Framber Valdez, who led the Astros to wins in all four of his postseason starts in 2022, fell flat in his first playoff start since Game 6 of last year’s World Series and was outpitched by Pablo López, who threw seven scoreless innings Sunday night to lead the Twins to a 6-2 win in Game 2 to even the ALDS at one game apiece.
“I just feel like in the postseason you try to win every pitch of every game and execute,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “Obviously, we didn't do that tonight. Tip your hat to Pablo [because] he pitched really well. We didn’t do enough offensively, but we have to regroup.”
When a Division Series with the current 2-2-1 format has been tied after two games, the club heading home for Games 3 and 4 has won the series 28 of 42 times (67 percent).
The Astros’ 12-game home winning streak in the ALDS came to an end, and they’ll head to Minneapolis for Games 3 and 4 needing one win to ensure another game at Minute Maid Park. Houston has been tough on the road this year, going 51-30, including 14-3 in its last 17 games away from home.
“It’s going to be a big crowd, it’s going to be loud,” Astros outfielder Chas McCormick said. “They got Sonny Gray on the mound, but we’ve been in this position before. Obviously, it's the playoffs. It’s going to be back and forth. We just have to go to Minnesota and be ready to play and be ready to hit and put up runs.”
The Astros will throw Cristian Javier in Game 3, but he hasn’t been the same Javier who was so brilliant last year in the regular season and postseason, though he did throw six scoreless innings in his final start of the regular season at Arizona a week ago. It will be either rookies J.P. France or Hunter Brown or veteran José Urquidy starting for Houston on the mound in Game 4.
“We’ve been in this situation before, and all we’ve got to do is control one game at a time,” Astros catcher Martín Maldonado said. “We’ve got Javi, and I feel like Javi, he’s made for big games. We all saw it last year in the World Series, and we all saw what he did in Arizona in the last game. We’ve got one of our best guys going.”
Valdez gave up a two-run homer to Kyle Farmer in the second inning, but the Astros’ inability to contain Carlos Correa was costly. As the Astros have seen so many times during his years in Houston, Correa rose to the occasion in the playoffs and went 3-for-4 with two doubles and three RBIs.
“He’s a great player,” said Bregman, who shared the left side of the infield with Correa for 5 1/2 seasons. “He’s one of the best players in the league, and he’s done it time after time in the postseason. You tip your hat to him and try and move on to the next day, move on to the next pitch, and continue to grind and battle, and that’s what this team does a really good job of.”
The Astros managed to get only one runner past second base prior to Yordan Alvarez’s eighth-inning homer, with López striking out seven and allowing six hits. Valdez, meanwhile, allowed five earned runs and seven hits in 4 1/3 innings after giving up just four earned runs in 25 innings in four starts -- all Astros wins -- in last year’s run to the World Series title.
Houston’s starting pitching isn’t as deep as it was last year in the postseason when it had Justin Verlander and Valdez -- two top-five Cy Young finishers -- an effective Javier and veteran Lance McCullers Jr. at the top. Now, the Astros will hope Javier’s late-season surge is real in Game 3 and rely on either France, Brown or Urquidy in Game 4, with Verlander ready for a possible Game 5.
“We know we're a good road team,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “We'd like to bring it back to the house here or win it there. So that's our goal, and their goal is to win it there. So we'll see come Tuesday.”