HOUSTON — Not much was easy for the Astros on their way to winning the American League West, a division they clinched on the final day of the season with a little help from the Mariners. So it should come as no surprise that the defending champions find themselves in a dogfight in the AL Division Series.
All-Star lefty Framber Valdez, who has led the Astros to wins in all four postseason games in 2022, pitched in his first playoff outing since Game 6 of last year’s World Series and was outplayed by Pablo Lopez, who tossed seven scoreless innings Sunday night to lead The Twins win 6-2 in Game 2 to even the ALDS at one game each.
“I feel like you’re in the postseason trying to win every pitch of every game and execute it,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said. “Obviously we didn’t do that tonight. Hats off to Pablo [because] He put on a really good show. We didn’t do enough offensively, but we have to regroup.”
When a Division Series in the current format is tied 2-2-1 after two games, the club that returns home for Games 3 and 4 will have won the series 28 of 42 times (67 percent).
The Astros’ 12-game home winning streak in the ALDS is over, and they head to Minneapolis for Games 3 and 4 needing one win to guarantee another game at Minute Maid Park. Houston has been tough on the road this year, going 51-30, including 14-3 in their last 17 away games.
“It’s going to be a big crowd, it’s going to be loud,” Astros outfielder Chase McCormick said. “They put Sonny Gray on the mound, but we’ve been in this position before. Obviously it’s the playoffs. It’s going to be back and forth. We just have to go to Minnesota and be ready to play and be ready to hit and run.”
The Astros will pitch to Christian Javier in Game 3, but he hasn’t been the same Javier who was so impressive last year in the regular season and postseason, although he did throw six scoreless innings in his final regular-season start in Arizona a week ago. It will be either rookies JP France, Hunter Brown or veteran José Urquidy who will start for Houston on the mound in Game 4.
“We’ve been in this situation before, and all we have to do is take control one game at a time,” Astros shortstop Martin Maldonado said. “We have Javi, and I feel like Javi, he’s ready for the big games. We all saw that last year in the World Series, we all saw what he did in Arizona in the last game. We have one of our best players.”
Valdez gave up a two-run homer to Kyle Farmer in the second inning, but the Astros’ inability to contain Carlos Correa proved costly. As the Astros saw many times during his years in Houston, Correa rose to the occasion in the playoffs and went 3-for-4 with two doubles and three RBIs.
“He’s a great player,” said Bregman, who played on the left side of the pitch for Korea for five-and-a-half seasons. “He’s one of the best players in the league, and he’s done that over and over again in the postseason. You tip your hat to him and try to move on to the next day, move on to the next pitch, keep working and battle, and that’s what this team does really well.”
The Astros managed to get just one runner past second base before Yordan Alvarez’s homer in the eighth inning, in which Lopez struck out seven and allowed six hits. Valdez, meanwhile, allowed five earned runs and seven hits in 4 1/3 innings after giving up just four earned runs in 25 innings in four starts — all wins for the Astros — in last year’s run to the World Series title.
Houston’s starting lineup wasn’t as deep as it was last year in the postseason when Justin Verlander and Valdez — two of the top five Cy Young players — the efficient Javier and veteran Lance McCullers Jr. were at the top. Now, the Astros are hoping Javier’s late-season rise is real in Game 3 and are banking on France, Brown or Urquidy in Game 4, with Verlander ready for a potential Game 5.
“We know we’re a good road team,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “We’d love to bring it home here or win it there. So that’s our goal, and their goal is to win there. So we’ll see coming Tuesday.”
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