BOSTON — Framber Valdez was barely halfway through the game of his life when a startling image came into view: Dusty Baker, Houston Astros manager, emerging from the third base dugout.
Valdez was working on a shutout in a crucial Game 5 of the American League Championship Series when Baker emerged, concerned about his burly left-hander after a single and hit batter gave the moribund Boston Red Sox a pulse in the bottom of the fifth inning.
Valdez was puzzled: A visit from pitching coach Brent Strom usually means he's staying in the game. Baker? That's usually a sign the hook is coming.
But now? With Valdez tossing four perfect innings, nursing a 1-0 lead and by far the best pitcher so far in this ALCS?
"It was surprising more than anything," Valdez says through an interpreter. "So the first thing I did was look back to the bullpen to see if anyone was warming up."
The overworked Astros bullpen was still, a bevy of blue and orange parkas parked on the bench. And Baker's message was simple, one Valdez practices himself between innings.
"Dusty just said breathe," says Valdez. "You can’t let a walk and a hit take you out of what you’re doing."
Three pitches later, the steady hand yielded dividends: A ground ball off Hunter Renfroe's bat that Houston deftly turned into a 6-4-3 double play.
Threat averted, Valdez did not stop from there, fulfilling a promise he made to himself and teammates after a grim 2⅔-inning outing in Game 1 of this series. A Rafael Devers home run in the seventh ruined the shutout, but another double-play ball short-circuited the threat.
And when the eighth arrived, there was Valdez, rolling out for what would be the longest and greatest start in this postseason of ineffective starters and overworked relievers: Eight innings, five strikeouts, just three baserunners, a 9-1 victory that brought Valdez to the doorstep of his first World Series.
Oh, plenty of his teammates have been there twice before. So it seemed startling that teammates told him in the postgame clubhouse that he carried them on his ample shoulders.
Valdez will take that on.
"I’m going to keep working to maintain that – keep the team on my shoulders," he says.
That feat of strength starts with a clear head that sits atop them.
Mind over matter
Between innings, cameras caught Valdez's eyes closed, the world seemingly silent around him, and it was no accident.
For several years, Valdez has consulted with a sports psychologist in the Dominican Republic, who has taught him the upside of meditation. It's a particularly useful trait in the bandbox of Fenway Park, with more than 37,000 fans practically on top of you in the most important game of the season.
— 🚀KGS HTownRocketsGal🚀 (@htownrocketsgal) October 21, 2021
"It was something I really worked on and practiced with my psychologist," says Valdez," and something that every time I’ve used it, it works for me 100%. My muscles don’t get out of hand, I don’t get in an altered state at all, and I get totally focused on what I need to do. It's something that centers me.
"It’s kind of hitting the reset button, letting go anything that happened the inning prior to that, and after I’ve done that I focus on the batters coming next and having the results I want."
It wasn't meditation, but rather determination that carried Valdez from one poor start to Wednesday's gem.
After a misadventure in Game 1 – the Astros prevailed but Valdez lasted just 2⅔ innings and allowed nine baserunners – Valdez told anyone who would listen that Game 5 would be different.
"I had a really ugly outing," he says. "I felt humiliated, and kept my mind on not letting that happen again."
And was highly specific, and considerably prescient.
"He actually said," says teammate Yuli Gurriel, "that he was going to throw an outing of more than seven innings. And to do it against a club like Boston, you have to give him a lot of credit."
Of course, Valdez did himself one better, completing eight innings, and setting up what could be a fantastic finish.
— MLB Stats (@MLBStats) October 21, 2021
A fresh identity
One more win, and the Astros will be back in the World Series for the third time in four years. Their identity has evolved considerably since winning a now-disputed 2017 World Series, falling one win shy of another title in 2019 and then facing the consequences of their own sign-stealing scandal.
Should they advance, it will be Valdez, and not Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole, jogging to the mound for Game 1.
Framboso, as Baker calls him, flummoxed the Red Sox with his trademark curveball and perhaps the best sinker he's ever thrown, touching 95 mph and inspiring Red Sox manager Alex Cora to call it "unreal."
The Atlanta Braves or Los Angeles Dodgers would get the next look at it, on the largest stage this 27-year-old, signed for just $100,000 out of the Dominican Republic, has ever climbed.
He will be well-equipped, with two nasty pitches, a virtually spotless mind and a support staff that knows how to center him when he strays.
"I said, man, you're the best," says Baker. "'Man, just be natural and just do your thing.' It was kind of like you call a 20-second timeout in basketball and try to take the air out of the game.
"That was a 20-second time-out that probably took 15 seconds."
His mind eased, Valdez's shoulders proved plenty broad to keep carrying his team.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: ALCS Game 5: Astros' Framber Valdez pitches game of life vs. Red Sox