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Framber Valdez throws another quality start in Astros 3-2 win over Mariners

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Name a more recognizable combination than Framber Valdez and quality starts. For the Astros, the timing was impeccable considering how the rotation has fared in recent weeks. Also, it would suck to face a potential four-game sweep at home against a division rival right before the All-Star break. I dislike calling any game a must-win in July — and I won’t do it now — but a loss would’ve been a wasted opportunity to at least steer the ship in the right direction, especially with your ace on the mound.

Thankfully, Valdez didn’t show any indications that his ankle injury, which prompted him to miss his last scheduled start, remains an issue. The left-hander had all of his pitches working effectively, limiting the Mariners to two runs on five hits — only one extra-base hit — and two walks across six innings. His curveball, in particular, had a nasty bite to it throughout the game, but none better than this first-inning punchout of Julio Rodríguez.

Unfortunately, the lineup didn’t generate much run support for Valdez, other than scoring two runs in the first inning against Seattle starter Bryan Woo, courtesy of three consecutive base hits from Jeremy Peña, Kyle Tucker, and Alex Bregman. The bats, however, failed to do much else for the remainder of the game, minus late-inning heroics from an unlikely source. More on that in a minute.

For the third consecutive game, the Astros failed to do much at the plate. They’ve only scored a total of five runs in the first three games of this four-game set. To be fair, Seattle’s pitching staff is among the best in baseball (12.4 fWAR). Still, this disappearing run-scoring act has been a consistent trend for Houston all season long. But that could hopefully change a bit soon as it does appear Jose Altuve won’t be out more than another game or two past the All-Star break along with Yordan Alvarez progressing from his oblique injury. If memory serves me well, I believe the Astros have only had Altuve and Alvarez in the same lineup only up to 15 times this season. I might be off by a game or two in either direction, but this inconsistency is somewhat expected when two of your best hitters have rarely overlapped in the lineup.

Back to the game. Arguably the biggest moment occurred when Héctor Neris escaped a no-out, bases-loaded jam of his creation in the top of the eighth inning. For context, the Astros entered the frame with a 50% win probability. By the time Neris loaded the bases — Ty France hit by pitch, a Teoscar Hernandez walk, and a Eugenio Suarez walk — Houston’s win probability plummeted to 20.9%. It is also worth pointing out that Neris had allowed a home run in each of his previous two outings. There are few things more concerning in baseball than a leaky reliever. Allow a hit, at least two runs score. Neris, however, buckled down and escaped the inning by retiring Cal Raleigh, Mike Ford, and José Caballero in order. I particularly love Neris’ reaction following his strikeout of Caballero on this nasty 94 MPH sinker.

Neris single-handily dropped the Astros’ win probability by nearly 30%, only to increase it to 60.4% when he strutted off the mound. Honestly, impressive stuff. In any case, the bottom half of the lineup was due up, and I was already making peace if Pressly could throw two innings if they failed to score in the ninth. Martín Maldonado(!) had other plans, though.

Even amid a season with a 48 wRC+ entering Saturday, Maldonado is still good for occasionally hitting a fly ball deep enough to left field to get out. Does it justify him being among the league leaders in innings caught among catchers? No, but it was the difference-maker for this one.

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The Astros now have a chance to salvage a series split Sunday with Brandon Bielak on the mound. With the Rangers losing to the Nationals earlier Saturday, Houston is only two games back for the division lead. At worst, they are no worse than three games out with a loss Sunday and a Rangers win. At best, only one game back if those results are flipped. Considering how the season has unfolded thus far, it could be much worse heading into the All-Star break.