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MLB

Framber Valdez sets Astros record with 21 straight quality starts

The Houston Astros have ridden their batting to three of the last five World Series, but now the strongest team in the AL is doing it on the mound

Update:
The Houston Astros have ridden their batting to three of the last five World Series, but now the strongest team in the AL is doing it on the mound
Carmen MandatoAFP

We have become used to seeing the Houston Astros swing big lumber. They have an uncanny knack of staying close in the game and then striking big with high-scoring late innings to push them over the top. This is the style of play that has seen them in three of the last five World Series. And 2022 started off in the same vein.

José Altuve and Yordan Álvarez have led the charge with some of the strongest numbers in baseball, with Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker showing a base running ability that would see them both be MVP and team captain of any other team in either league. But then something switched.

The Astros are, with every game, riding the wave of their pitching staff more and more. It is not that their hitting has dropped off, far from it. But they have quietly, almost stealthily, come up with the best 1-2 pitching combo in the game.

Justin Verlander is having a career season. Arms are not supposed to get better with age, but Verlander is throwing perhaps harder, definitely showing more precision and control, than we have ever seen out of the 39-year-old, 17-year veteran. He was a beast when he came up with Detroit and has won the World Series with two teams, the Cy Young Award twice, and been an All-Star nine times. When he finally hangs his glove up, you have to feel that he is a tap-in for the Hall of Fame.

Yet, instead of riding off slowly into the sunset of a glorious career, he has come back from Tommy John surgery and staked a serious claim to the AL Cy Young race. On Tuesday, he K’d ten batters on the way to throwing six hitless innings before he was sat down.

He threw some of the best stuff of any pitcher this season in the 4-2 win over the Twins, the 242nd of his career. His 3161 strikeouts put him 13th on the all-time strikeout list, ahead of both Pedro Martinez and Max Scherzer.

But while Verlander might be the back-hand knockout shot, the jab that sets him up is every bit as biting. Framber Valdez is ten years Verlander’s junior, but he is throwing with a durability and strength that puts him on a different level.

In following up Verlander’s no hit bid, the very next day Valdez went seven innings in Houston’s 5-3 win over Minnesota, allowing only one run on two hits while striking out eight. This effort sees the young Dominican set a new Astros franchise record with 21 consecutive quality starts, including two complete games.

In the modern age of pitch counts and protecting pitchers’ arms, going a complete game is an anomaly rather than the old-school benchmark that it once was, and it has been all but supplanted by the quality start, a term which is generally taken to mean that a starting pitcher goes six or more innings while giving up less than three runs.

While Verlander is a strikeout specialist, Valdez tends to rely on his curious ability to force ground balls. Together with his strength, this has seen him vaulted into the same exclusive group as Jacob deGrom, who recorded 26 consecutive quality starts from 2018-19 for the Mets, Jake Arrieta, who had 24 in a row from 2015-16 for the Cubs, Chris Carpenter, who strung together 22 back in 2005 for the Cardinals, and Johan Santana who tossed 21 in 2004 for the Twins.

Astros manager Dusty Baker said of Valdez, “He’s as strong as [boxing legend] Jack Johnson. This dude is strong physically and is getting there mentally. He’s built like a running back and could be a lot of things. He’s strong, works hard and he’s a man.”

High praise indeed.

Former team mate Carlos Correa agrees. “He always had the stuff and he has the heart. He’s an ace. He’s an ace, that’s for sure.”

This Houston Astros team is looking every day like an even stronger version of last year’s World Series runners up. They can do it with the bats, and now they have a rotation that can shut down the best offenses in the game. Any road to the World Series must, without any doubt, go through Houston.

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