Anaheim, Calif. – After the 103rd pitch on Framper Valdez’s great night, in the middle of another fight by baseball’s MVP, Martin Maldonado got up from his perch and let out a nightmare. Sensing something wrong with the Astros’ ace, he pointed to the first base dugout and called out head coach Jeremiah Randall.
Maldonado noticed Valdez with a facial expression he didn’t like, so Randall, manager Dusty Baker, and pitching coach Josh Miller moved toward the mound. A brief conversation ended with no warm-up messages or a plea to stay in the game. Valdez walked out alongside Randall, the one scene the Astros weren’t prepared to take on.
“We can’t take any more injuries,” said Chas McCormick. “She’s like, ‘holy crap, not asna.’ Sucks. I just hope he’s OK.”
Chaos ensued for the next three frames. Houston blew a six-run lead that he held to start the seventh, took a three-run lead in the ninth and watched a close quarters shutout give it away. With the go-ahead run on third base during the tenth inning, Jeremy Peña suffered a right hamstring cramp on his first swing. He stayed in the game, got out and sank his runs to . 687.
Peña could not play defense through the 10th. He replaced a rookie with 12 innings of major league experience and held the escape act in hand. Converting a routine double play that would have produced the eleventh inning. Instead, Grae Kessinger sailed to throw the ball to first base, allowing Angels rookie Trey Cabbage to cross home during the winning run and complete a breakdown unlike anything the Astros have absorbed over the past seven seasons.
“Shocking, you have to say,” Maldonado said after losing 13-12. “We lost a game with a big lead and with our best (pitchers) on the mound.”
None of the previous 92 games of the season better illustrated that Houston continues to walk the tightrope. Saturday revealed everything wrong with a slender roster, an inexperienced table, a taxed table, and a battered starting turnover. The depth is dwindling to near non-existence – and the trade deadline is still two and a half weeks away.
Rookie general manager Dana Brown watched the entire miserable night unfold from the booth behind the plate. He must already feel the urgency to upgrade this unequal club. Perhaps Saturday strengthened it. Texas now holds a three-game lead over the Astros in the American League West.
No one at the Houston club has expressed long-term concern about Valdez’s injury, which Baker said he “hoped” was a cramp. Peña said he “should” be ready to play in the series finale on Sunday. Valdez, who missed a start after spraining his right ankle last month, did not commit to starting in his next start. Losing him for any length of time would doom his already depleted staff.
“We need to make sure he’s okay,” Maldonado said. “This is a guy we’re going to need a long time going forward.”
Valdez was out after a perfect 6 2/3 innings. He set a career high with 13 knockdowns while swinging and misses failed to equal a personal best. Valdez settled for 23 whiffs on 54 swings that Los Angeles took.
After Luis Rengifo tagged him for a three-run home run in the third inning, Valdez did not allow an angel to third base until seventh, a tire he entered in 89 pitches. Houston scored five runs in the first inning, extending the lead to six as Valdez was forced to wait a long time before falling back.
Debate will rage over whether Baker could have erred and removed Valdez after the attack broke out. Houston took a 9-3 lead and nine teams to secure. That the team forced Valdez to skip the World Baseball Classic and the All-Star Game sums up the extreme measures he takes to ensure he stays healthy. The loss of Lance McCullers Jr., Luis Garcia, and Jose Urquidi to injuries increases their vigilance.
Baker needed five relievers to finish Friday’s 7-5 win, the result of a 4-1/3-inning outing from rookie JP France. The four de-escalators in his office are already fatigued after absorbing an unsustainable workload in the first half. Brian Abreu, Phil Mattoon, Hector Neres and Ryan Pressley have all made at least 40 appearances this season. Both of these clout relievers delivered during Friday’s win. Sunday’s starter, Christian Javier, hasn’t finished five innings since June 15 and has a 7.48 ERA over his past six starts.
Baker said Valdez did not complain about any discomfort between rounds. Given the uncertainty on Sunday, Baker did what any other coach in his position would do—sent the Aces out for seventh. To attack Baker for what happened on Saturday is absurd.
Valdez started the frame by walking Matt Theis. Zack Nito Ledoff hit a two-run home run, sending Shuhei Ohtani to bat for a four-run game.
Otani faced Valdez more than any other player in his major league career. The two-way star got up 4-for-31 Saturday against the Houston Aces. Valdez hit him twice more during the game and took it 0-1 through the seventh. Valdez called a changeover. I sailed abroad.
“I felt a little pull there when I threw that note on Ohtani, my left leg,” Valdez said through an interpreter. “I don’t know if it was just fatigue or dehydration or what, but I pulled something in there.”
Valdez did not press to stay in the game. When asked if he could continue to play, Valdez replied: “No. In those situations, I don’t like risk or force. We have a lot of comfortable performances and a lot of players who can get the job done too. I felt it was better to lose that role than to Losing 100 rounds.”
Ryne Stanek entered in relief. He walked a batter, yielded two hits and surrendered three earned runs. Two of them scored on Mike Moustakas’ game-winning three-run home run against Abreu, who appeared Saturday in his 45th league lead. Abreu has never made more than 55 in any season.
However, Stanek’s inability to land strikes or control a four-run game forced Baker to call upon his power reducers again. As dominant as everyone else was, the four-man bullpen isn’t sustainable for a team that fancies itself a World Series contender. Using them at the rate that Baker and Miller promise is a recipe for disaster – a fact Brown must understand after Saturday.
Neres bowled eight clean before Pressley reached the bottom of the ninth. Houston had drive-by Rafael Montero on his side, but singled out Presley in a three-way match. It was a save state, sure, but Montero has a 1.59 WHIP and a 6.57 ERA – once again underlining the complete lack of any reliable depth on a depleted database.
Presley had not allowed a hit for the previous 42 batters he faced. Ohtani obliterated the field for a home run to dead center field to spoil that streak. Four of the next five batters hit. He scored two of them, one of them on a pass that Maldonado said he “should have caught”. Hard hitting threw 32 pitches on the season.
“We didn’t play bad, they just beat us,” Baker said.
Houston actually took out the Angels 16-15. None of them came in the tenth. Peña was unable to get the go-ahead from third base after suffering muscle cramps. Alex Bregman flew off the field to leave it there, and cut his season OPS to . 718.
Bregman and Peña finished the match 2 for 12, putting Mattoon in a precarious position. Getting out of it requires one globe. Taylor Ward bumped the ball to Mauricio Dupont, the second baseman who flipped to shortstop playing his ninth major league game, another big problem on the roster of players they’re scattered with.
“I was ready, free. You just didn’t throw the ball,” said Kissinger, who was encouraged in the postgame clubhouse from Dupont, bench coach Joe Espada and first base coach Omar Lopez.
“It just happens and tomorrow is a new day. We have to get back to work, that’s all we can do.”
(Photo by Framper Valdez: Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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