HOUSTON — Astros ace Framber Valdez admits he gets excited when he has to face Angels pitcher Shohei Ohtani. The same probably can’t be said for Ohtani about facing Valdez, who lost to him Friday night for the second time in less than a month.
Valdez picked up his fourth straight victory by throwing seven scoreless innings, allowing five hits while striking out seven batters, to defeat Ohtani and the Angels, 6- 2, on Friday night at Minute Maid Park. Both of Ohtani’s losses this season came against Valdez, who threw eight innings of one-run ball on May 9 in Anaheim.
“I was really excited sometimes pitching against Ohtani,” Valdez said. “Obviously, he’s probably the best player in the league right now — the MVP. But every time I go up there, I see it as, I’m fighting with his teammates, and my teammates are also the ones that help me beat him, as well. Don’t try to focus on the way he pitches. He’s like me, trying to get out there and throw strikes and throw to the middle of the plate and get outs as well. Fortunately, today our guys got him.”
Yordan Alvarez blasted a two-run homer off Ohtani in the first inning, making him the first Major League player to reach 50 RBIs this season. Corey Julks added a two-run homer in the sixth to put the Astros ahead, 5-0. Ohtani (5-2) gave up five runs and struck out six batters in six innings.
“It started with Alvarez, then he got tired at the end and he hung a pitch on Julks,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “That was most of our runs. How did we get to him? Nobody was getting a lot of him. We were fortunate not to miss pitches when we had a chance to hit him.”
Alvarez’s homer was the first of his career against Ohtani. Seven of his team-high 15 homers this year have led the Astros.
“He’s a horse out there, and when he steps into the batter’s box he’s got to be feared,” Valdez said. “Pitchers who step up to the batter’s box know who he is, and I’m not really surprised by what he’s been doing this early in the season. He’s a good hitter.”
Valdez (6-4) proved to be an escape artist Friday, striking out Ohtani and Mike Trout to end the third and stranding a pair of runners. He got a key double play to end the fourth after giving up two singles to start the inning. And to end the seventh, he took an inning-ending, bases-loaded double play into a sinker.
“He was awesome, and he survived double-play balls like he usually does, and saved his pitch count some,” Baker said. “You could tell it was hot in there. Framber was sweating, Ohtani was sweating. They were both pretty gassed.”
In his past five outings starting with a win over the Angels on May 9, Valdez is 4-0 with a 1.59 ERA and 0.85 WHIP, with the Astros going 5-0 in the span. In his last three starts, Valdez is 3-0 with a 0.41 ERA and 0.77 WHIP, allowing one earned run in 22 innings with 19 strikeouts and four walks.
“Back in my day, we were saying drop the ball, and when guys were swinging at pitches, we didn’t understand why,” Angels manager Phil Nevin said. “But with today’s technology, we already know [Valdez’s sinker] someone is on board and looks like he’s in a certain place, but he’s not. It’s really hard to hit, obviously.
Valdez entered Friday with a career 65.9 percent ground-ball percentage, the highest in the Majors since 2018 (minimum 300 innings), so when he got three fly balls out in the first inning, it raised eyebrows. Soon, though, it was back to vintage Valdez, who didn’t get another flyout the rest of the game.
Valdez said his 96.4 mph sinker to ground Chad Wallach into a 6-4-3 double play on his 92nd and final pitch of the night was perhaps his best of the game. Maybe he left the mound with a big smile on his face. Beating Ohtani again didn’t hurt either.
“I feel really good today,” he said. “I felt calm and focused.”