HOUSTON — Not long after Framber Valdez took the mound to begin the 2021 World Series for the Astros, the Braves snatched the life out of a boisterous Minute Maid Park and its Game 1 starter in a way only an historic swing could do.
On Valdez’s third pitch of the Astros’ eventual 6-2 defeat on Tuesday night, Braves designated hitter and leadoff man Jorge Soler saw a sinker up and launched it out to the Crawford Boxes in left field for a solo home run. Baseball has seen 116 Fall Classics, and not one has had a player hit a home run in the first plate appearance; four players had hit a home run in their team’s first plate appearance of the World Series — the bottom of the first inning — but none ever in the top of the first.
“It’s a shocker, when you come off a great outing like he just did, then the first batter hits it out of the ballpark,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “So it was kind of a negative from the very beginning.”
Valdez couldn’t recover and put his offense in too much of a hole early, recording just six outs and giving up five runs in his worst start of the season on baseball’s biggest stage. Now, the Astros have work to do. Teams taking a 1-0 lead in any best-of-seven postseason series have gone on to win that series 118 of 184 times (64%). That includes 21 of 26 times (81%) in the World Series since 1995.
After allowing one run on three hits across eight innings in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against Boston, Valdez allowed two runs on three hits in just the first inning Tuesday. His final line after two-plus innings included five runs, one walk and two strikeouts.
“It was my first World Series game, so I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t feel the pressure, I didn’t feel any kind of tension,” Valdez said. “But I did everything I could to lower that, lower the adrenaline, lower the emotion I was feeling.”
The Braves forced Valdez out of his comfort zone early. The 27-year-old lefty has become a stable force in the Houston rotation by relying on weak contact, being a ground-ball machine and dropping in devastating curveballs for whiffs. That’s how he navigated Boston’s offense in the ALCS.
On Tuesday night, Valdez struggled to land his curveball consistently. And when he did find the strike zone, Atlanta made scorching contact in the air.
The Braves averaged 99.4 mph on their batted balls against Valdez. That’s the highest average exit velocity he has allowed in any outing of his career (min. 10 batted balls). It’s also the second-highest average exit velocity allowed by any pitcher in a postseason outing (min. 10 batted balls) since 2015, trailing Tyler Glasnow (100.4) in last year’s World Series Game 5.
Valdez, who led the Majors with a 78.3 percent ground-ball rate in the regular season, allowed six line drives and fly balls, matching his total allowed over the eight innings he pitched in his last start. Of the six Tuesday, four went for hits — a single, double and two homers.
“I think the biggest reason for that is probably because I left the ball up a lot in the zone tonight, so they were able to get a lot of fly balls, a lot of line drives,” Valdez said. “… That’s not the kind of pitcher I am. I like to leave them down in the zone. I think that’s one of the major adjustments I’m thinking of making is being down in the zone now. I think, if I do that, I’ll be able to get my ground balls, get my outs, get my strikeouts, but it’s just a matter of not leaving the ball up in the zone as much.”
Five of the eight hits Valdez allowed came from behind in the count. He got behind 2-0 to Soler, leading to a sinker up in the zone. The same thing happened against Ozzie Albies two batters later. After Albies stole second base, Valdez threw three sinkers for balls to Austin Riley before hanging one that Riley lined to center field for an RBI double.
“It doesn’t matter what the quality of the batter is, if you get behind in counts, you’re going to run into situations where they do damage against you,” Valdez said.
The Braves scored another run in the second, and more damage came in the third. Eddie Rosario singled on a full count, and Adam Duvall hit a 1-0 laser shot to the Crawford Boxes for a two-run home run.
The hang time on Duvall’s 112 mph liner was 3.7 seconds. It was the second-shortest hang time on a Braves home run this season, following Austin Riley’s 3.56-second homer on April 28 against the Cubs.
Almost as quickly as the ball landed, Valdez’s Game 1 start was over.
And almost as quickly as it was over, Valdez and the Astros were thinking about Game 2 on Wednesday. They don’t have time to dwell on everything that went wrong in Game 1.
“That page has already been turned for us,” Valdez said. “We’ve moved past it. Tonight’s over. Tomorrow we’re going to come in here and try to win it and do everything we can to get our first win in the World Series.”