Since July 15, it has become a guessing exercise in which Framber Valdez will appear. Yes, the occasional glimpse of glory may come along — his August 1 no-hitter against the Guardians, for example — but the left-hander’s inconsistency has become noticeably problematic. Before July 15, Valdez posted a 2.51 ERA and 2.80 FIP in 111 innings. Ace-quality numbers, right? However, from July 15 onwards, his numbers have noticeably suffered, with a 4.66 ERA and 4.39 FIP in his next 87 innings.
Whether due to his left calf injury on July 15 against the Angels or something else entirely, it is a fact that Valdez has noticeably struggled in the last few months. Unfortunately, in his first start of the 2023 postseason, Valdez again looked increasingly like the pitcher who has struggled in recent months than the one who had a sub-3.00 ERA in his first 17 starts. Against the Twins, led by former teammate Carlos Correa, the Astros’ co-ace didn’t help the home team’s cause, allowing five earned runs on seven hits and three walks in 4 1⁄3 innings. Sure, he struck out five and generated 11 whiffs, but the left-hander didn’t look particularly sharp. Correa drove in three of the Twins’ five runs, all against Valdez. Kyle Farmer belted a two-run shot in the second inning. By the conclusion of his night in the fifth inning, the Astros had only a 4.7% win probability. In a game when Valdez did not have his best stuff, the fact that Dusty Baker let him face the top of the Twins’ order a third time, including Correa, felt like the official turning point in the game.
But Valdez can only absorb so much blame. After all, the Astros’ lineup did nothing of significance against Pablo López, with the right-hander limiting the opposing hitters to six hits and a walk across seven scoreless innings, striking out seven on 105 pitches. It also doesn’t help when Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, Kyle Tucker, and José Abreu were a combined 1-for-14 with two runs and two walks. The lone hit was Alvarez’s two-run shot in the bottom of the eighth inning against Twins’ reliever Brock Stewart to avoid the shutout.
If there was a silver lining to Game 2 — it was difficult to find, trust me — it was how Hunter Brown pitched in the top of the ninth (two strikeouts on 15 pitches). If it wasn’t for the dearth of starting options at times this season, one can’t help but wonder if a move to the bullpen earlier in the season perhaps have been beneficial for the rookie right-hander. A usage plan similar to Cristian Javier in 2021 comes to mind. Yes, it was only one appearance in a game basically decided, but considering how Brown struggled leading up to the postseason, it was at least a positive. Something to perhaps watch in this series.
Well, the Astros are off on Monday with Game 3 scheduled for Tuesday in Minnesota. Cristian Javier will start opposite Sonny Gray, one of the best starters in the AL this season. The pitching matchup from this point onwards likely favors the Twins, with the possibility of López in a Game 5 looming if Houston secures at least one more win in the next two games.
But if I could provide a bit of optimism about Javier leading into Game 3, it is worth noting that he posted a 3.05 ERA and 3.06 FIP in his last 20 2⁄3 innings. More importantly, his swinging strike rate has recovered in those recent four starts, coming in at 14.3%. It was 11.0% on the season leading up to September 9. For context, his swinging strike rate in 2022 was 13.8%. Sure, it was only four starts, but if Javier can at least maintain that improvement, it could become the difference in how Game 3 unfolds.