World Series 2022 – Framber Valdez ready for Game 2 for Astros

HOUSTON — The moment struck Framber Valdez on the night of October 20 in the fourth inning of game two of the American League Championship Series, with the Houston Astros leading and the New York Yankees threatening due to Valdez’s own mistakes. Valdez had humped a slow-hitting comebacker, then tripped as he retrieved the baseball and threw wildly to first base, putting two runners in scoring position and taking the tie to the batter’s box.

Astros pitching coach Bill Murphy watched with heightened attention. Murphy had coached Valdez through various phases of his development, marveling at his command but noting how it faltered. At the beginning of Valdez’s career, traffic bothered him. Frustration would set in, focus would drift, and starts would unravel. But Valdez had spent the last three years studying his own psychology and embracing meditation, an approach that many – including himself – have credited for his rise as one of the sport’s finest and most enduring starting pitchers. At that moment, against the Yankees, was his biggest challenge yet.

“I was like, ‘This is the real test of where he is,'” Murphy recalled. “Here it can unravel.”

Alex Bregman walked over to the hill from third base; Martin Maldonado followed with a visit from behind home plate. Valdez took the blame and kept three thoughts.

To breathe. To smile. Relax.

Valdez knocked out 12 of the next 14 batters he faced and allowed those two baserunners to score but gave up nothing else in what would make for a sizzling seven-inning win. At the culmination of years of progress, he had experienced the kind of moment that had ruined him so many times and persevered.

His next start in Game 2 of the World Series on Saturday night will bring another test as his team struggles after squandering a five-run lead in an extra-inning loss in Game 1 to the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Astros, a 106-win regular-season juggernaut who went through the first two rounds of the playoffs unbeaten, can barely afford to be 2-0 down in the series after three straight games in Philadelphia. They need Valdez to serve like an ace in his matchup against Zack Wheeler. You need him to meet. He believes he can.

“I’m really proud that what I’m doing now reflects the progress I’ve made,” Valdez said in Spanish. “You see the difference in my starts, in the way I act.”

Valdez, 28, was a struggling long reliever during his first two seasons in 2018 and 2019. Giving up 68 walks and hitting eight batters in a 107⅔ inning streak, he struggled to play a consistent role and often buckled at the first sign of trouble. Heading into the 2020 season, Astros director of Latin American operations Caridad Cabrera insisted that Valdez work with the team’s psychologist, Dr. Andy Nunez, collaborates.

Valdez was initially reluctant, assuming that psychologists only work on mental health issues. “But I eventually learned that’s not the case,” he said. “They are there to help your mindset, to help you focus, to help you stay in the right frame of mind.”

Nunez taught Valdez techniques to mediate and control his breathing in stressful situations. It took about five months for Nunez’s concepts to be implemented in the field, Valdez said, and even then progress was gradual. Blurs weren’t completely eliminated, but they became shorter. He began to control his anger when softly hit balls turned into punches, began learning how to distance himself from factors beyond his control.

In 2020 and 2021, Valdez posted a 3.29 ERA in 205⅓ innings and established himself as a fixture in a talented Astros rotation. In 2022 he reached a new level. Valdez — a groundball master armed with one hell of a curveball and a devastating sinker, a rare mix for a left-handed pitcher — went 17-6 with a 2.82 ERA in an AL-leading 201⅓ innings. He threw a shutout, pitched in the All-Star game, set a major league record with 25 consecutive quality starts and put himself in the running for a Cy Young Award, which teammate Justin Verlander is likely to win.

“It seems like we all want finished products before they’re even finished,” said Astros executive Dusty Baker. “It takes time. It takes trial and error. It takes success and some failures to get to this point. The more success you have, the more confidence you have. Right now Framber has a very high level of confidence.”

It’s a big change from eight years ago when Valdez’s confidence was at rock bottom. He was a non-contracted Dominican pitcher who had recently turned 21, old in an international market where players often make deals as young as 12 and 13. Six teams had previously pledged to sign him but backed out after concerns about his medical care.

Valdez said, “I felt like no one wanted me.”

The Astros proved him wrong.

It was 2015, on a late spring afternoon. Roman Ocumarez, former Astros scouting supervisor, and David Brito, former area scout, made routes in the eastern part of the Dominican Republic. They had already visited four facilities and the sun was setting, but Brito said they had an older child with an intriguing breaking ball to look after. Reaching a darkening field, they set up an “L” screen behind the catcher and placed Valdez on top of the hill.

When the first curveball left Valdez’s hand, Ocumarez thought the baseball was headed for his face. He quickly ducked out of the way and watched it cut back for a punch across the heart of home plate. Ocumarez, available by phone, was asked if he had ever seen such a sharp curveball from such a raw pitcher.

“No, señor,” he said, and then kept coming back to that phrase. “No senor, no senor, no senor.”

Ocumarez and Brito limited Valdez’s initial training to just a dozen pitches and had him do the same at their facility the next morning. Ocumarez committed to signing him. He made him wait three days to get checked out, hoping any worrisome inflammation in his elbow would subside and the doctors would heal him.

“The body has returned to normal,” Ocumarez said. “He was meant for us.”

The Astros find themselves in the World Series for the fourth time in six years, a feat made all the more impressive by the seemingly random results that have become increasingly common in an era of expanded postseason fields. In the time since their scandal-ridden first championship in 2017, the Astros have lost megastars like Gerrit Cole, Carlos Correa and George Springer and found a way to stay dominant. The widening of their window is largely a testament to the development of players that the industry tends to overlook, exemplified by Valdez, Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy and Luis Garcia, key cogs within an elite pitching team that perform well below average on deals market price were won.

Valdez is the best of them – and now he faces an even bigger test.

The left-hander dominated the Boston Red Sox in his last ALCS start last October, but struggled mightily against the Atlanta Braves in his first World Series. He made two starts and gave up five runs through less than three innings in each of them, setting the stage for an upset. He believes he had “too much emotion, too much desire” on those outings.

He is confident that this time will be different.

“Now I understand it’s the same game, the same racquets – I just have to study them and do what I do,” said Valdez, who still speaks to Nunez on a daily basis. “I also understand that things can go wrong. You can be the best ever and things will go wrong. I now know how to deal with it.” World Series 2022 – Framber Valdez ready for Game 2 for Astros

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