Astros’ Framber Valdez finds his focus to no-hit Guardians


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HOUSTON — Focus once felt unattainable for Framber Valdez. But as he has ascended to acehood over the past two years, he has discovered a way. Valdez heeds advice from a sports psychologist to draw some deep breaths, take stock of his surroundings and settle his sometimes wayward mind. The tactics turned Valdez from a forgotten bullpen arm to a bona fide ace.

Not all fixes are foolproof. Accolades and two All-Star appearances may suggest otherwise, but Valdez is not a finished product. He requires weekly work on his mental maturation through talks with Dr. Andy Nuñez, the man he credits with saving his career.

Valdez still speaks with the Astros’ sports psychologist before most of his starts. The four ugly outings that preceded his start Tuesday demonstrated why. Valdez had a 7.29 ERA across those 21 innings, and he hit the Texas Rangers’ Marcus Semien during the fourth start, sparking a war of words and causing benches to clear between Texas and Houston.

Valdez acknowledged afterward he lost his composure. He devoted the following five days to rediscovering himself. Nuñez encouraged him to focus on things he could control and reminded him to take those deep breaths.

He emerged for Tuesday’s start against the Cleveland Guardians ready to put it into practice.

“He had a different sort of focus and demeanor and presence the whole time — from warmup to in the dugout in between innings to on the mound in the game,” pitching coach Josh Miller said.

Valdez threw the 16th no-hitter in Astros history during a 2-0 win against the Cleveland Guardians at Minute Maid Park, bringing a climactic end to perhaps one of the most seismic non-October days in franchise history. Five hours earlier, Houston reacquired former ace Justin Verlander from the New York Mets.

Valdez, 29, is the first left-handed pitcher in franchise history to throw a no-hitter and the first Astro to fire a solo no-hitter since Verlander blanked the Toronto Blue Jays on Sept. 1, 2019, at Rogers Centre.

With Verlander back in the fold, Valdez demonstrated how lethal the new top of Houston’s rotation could be. He required 93 pitches to retire the minimum 27 batters he faced. Only a fifth-inning walk to Oscar Gonzalez prevented Valdez from pitching a perfect game. He settled instead for a Maddux — a complete game shutout on fewer than 100 pitches.

“He said he has to start this month better than what he did last month,” veteran catcher Martín Maldonado said. “He wasn’t executing pitches. The whole thing was thinking about (throwing the) sinker down from the beginning.”

So, to start the game, Maldonado set his mitt below Steven Kwan’s strike zone. Valdez fired two sinkers to the target for called strikes. Two pitches later, Kwan swung over a 1-2 changeup for the first of Valdez’s seven strikeouts, setting a tone the pitcher would maintain for the next nine frames.

Catcher Martin Maldonado celebrated with Valdez after the game. (Logan Riely / Getty Images)

Few of Valdez’s outings this season felt as vintage as this one. He spun curveballs at will and generated weak, early-count contact with his sinker. A Guardians lineup gutted by Josh Bell’s pregame trade and Josh Naylor’s right side tightness managed to hit one ball in play harder than 100 mph.

Valdez threw 53 of his 93 pitches for strikes and surrendered just five balls in play hit harder than 95 mph. He generated 12 ground-ball outs and did not need any dazzling defensive plays behind him. Perhaps the only close call arrived with two outs in the seventh inning when José Ramírez bounced a groundball toward the mound. It exited his bat at 98.8 mph and deflected off Valdez’s outstretched glove. Shortstop Jeremy Peña corralled it and completed the putout, placing Valdez six outs from history.

“This is like the fifth time this year where I’m like ‘Oh, yeah, he’s got no-hit stuff today,’” Miller said. “There’s a couple times when he’s taken it into the fourth, fifth inning and you’re like ‘OK, this is the game’ and then something happens and it just unravels on him. It happens quick. It didn’t happen tonight. I think it was mostly tied to his focus and his demeanor during the game, in between innings and before the game.”

Pomp and circumstance from Verlander’s acquisition permeated the evening. Players in the clubhouse found out about the trade around 1:30 p.m. The team played Verlander’s highlights on the scoreboard during pregame batting practice and just before Valdez took the mound to deliver the first pitch. It could have crept into Valdez’s purview. He did not allow it.

“He wasn’t joking around,” Maldonado said. “He was straight business from the moment he walked out there.”

Manager Dusty Baker has kept this battery intact all season for a reason. Maldonado can control Valdez better than anyone in the clubhouse, sometimes with a stern lecture, other times with a gentle pat on the head. The pitch clock sometimes prevents Valdez from stepping off the rubber or implementing some of Nuñez’s breathing tactics — something Baker has mentioned multiple times this season when Valdez scuffles. Putting Maldonado behind the plate provides a safety blanket in case of catastrophe. The rapport they have is remarkable, a reminder of the intangibles that make Maldonado the team’s everyday catcher despite his poor offensive stats.

“I went out there just trying to pitch a good game, get a good game for my team,” Valdez said through an interpreter. “When I got to the seventh inning, I felt that all my pitches were still really good. I had a really good (connection) with (Maldonado), I felt good physically, and that’s when I said ‘I think I can still finish it, I can do this.’”

Valdez finished the seventh inning in five pitches. He descended the dugout stairs and stuck to his same routine. Between innings at home, Valdez sits in front of a huge fan to cool himself off in a hallway between the clubhouse and dugout. When Astros hitters get to two outs, he throws a plyo ball against a wall to keep his arm loose. Yes, Miller spoke to him between innings.

Valdez required 10 pitches to finish the eighth inning. Because Houston held such a slim lead, Baker and Miller encountered a dilemma. Any base runner Valdez allowed during the ninth inning would bring the tying run to the plate.

The two men weighed whether to have closer Ryan Pressly warming in case chaos erupted. They chose against it. According to both of them, Valdez is more aware than most starting pitchers when a reliever begins to throw in the bullpen.

The risk of interrupting Valdez’s rhythm and focus did not feel worth it. The bottom three hitters in Cleveland’s order saw 12 pitches. Gabriel Arias hit the Guardians’ hardest ball of the evening — a 103.8 mph groundball that Jose Altuve handled without incident at second base.

Myles Straw skied out to center field before Cam Gallagher lined out softly to shortstop, sending Houston’s dugout spilling onto the field in celebration. The Astros doused Valdez with water while he wore a wide smile and posed for a throng of photographers. On a day dominated by one ace’s acquisition, the emergence of another continued.

“You like to see them grow into a man, grow into a responsible person, a responsible person and friend to his teammates,” Baker said. “All the guys pull for Framber. He pulls for these guys at the same time. He’s a fun-loving guy.”

(Top photo of Framber Valdez: Logan Riely / Getty Images)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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