As of July 15, it became a guessing game as to which Framber Valdez would appear. Yes, there may be flashes of glory from time to time – like his Aug. 1 no-hitter against the Rangers – but the left-hander’s inconsistency has become noticeably problematic. Prior to July 15, Valdez posted a 2.51 ERA and 2.80 FIP in 111 innings. Ace quality numbers, right? However, as of July 15, his numbers dropped significantly, posting a 4.66 ERA and 4.39 FIP over the next 87 innings.
Whether it was the left calf injury he suffered on July 15 against the Angels or something else entirely, the fact is that Valdez has had noticeable issues over the last few months. Unfortunately, in his first start of the 2023 postseason, Valdez once again looked increasingly like a pitcher who has struggled in recent months rather than one whose ERA was below 3.00 through his first 17 starts. Against the Twins, led by former teammate Carlos Correa, the Astros’ co-ace didn’t help the home team, allowing five earned runs on seven hits and three walks over 4.5 innings. Sure, he struck out five and generated 11 whiffs, but the left-hander didn’t look particularly sharp. Correa appeared in three of the Twins’ five innings, all against Valdez. Kyle Farmer hit a two-point shot in the second inning. At the end of the night in the fifth inning, the Astros had only a 4.7% probability of winning. In a game where Valdez wasn’t at his best, the fact that Dusty Baker allowed him to face the top-ranked Twins, including Correa, for a third time seemed to be the official turning point in the game.
But Valdez can only take so much blame. After all, the Astros lineup didn’t do anything significant against Pablo López, as the right-hander limited opponents to six hits and went seven scoreless innings, striking out seven in 105 pitches. It also doesn’t help that Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker and José Abreu combined to go 1-for-14 with two runs and two walks. The only hit was a two-run shot by Alvarez in the bottom of the eighth inning against Twins reliever Brock Stewart, who avoided the shutout.
If there was any good starting point for Game 2 – believe me, it was hard to find – it was the way Hunter Brown pitched in the top of the ninth (two strikeouts in 15 pitches). If it weren’t for the lack of exit options this season, one can’t help but wonder if moving to the bullpen earlier in the season might have been beneficial for the rookie right-hander. A Cristian Javier-like usage plan for 2021 comes to mind. Yes, it was technically just one appearance in the game, but considering Brown’s postseason struggles, it was at least a positive. Perhaps something worth watching in this series.
Well, the Astros are off on Monday, with Game 3 scheduled for Tuesday in Minnesota. Cristian Javier will start alongside Sonny Gray, one of the best starters in the AL this season. From here on out, the pitching matchup will likely favor the Twins, with the risk of López being dangerous in Game 5 if Houston secures at least one more win in the next two games.
However, if I could offer some optimism as Javier enters Game 3, it’s worth noting that he has posted a 3.05 ERA and 3.06 FIP over the last 20 and a half innings. More importantly, his swinging strikeout rate has increased to 14.3% in his last four starts. In the season before September 9, it was 11.0%. For comparison, his variable strikeout rate in 2022 was 13.8%. Sure, it’s only been four starts, but if Javier can at least maintain this improvement, it could have an impact on Game 3.
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