Culture / Sporting Life

Astros Make the White Sox Look Like Pretenders — the American League’s True Elite Team is Back With Miracle Man Framber Valdez

An Ace's Unlikely Injury Comeback and Baseball's Best Offense Has Houston Looking Like Houston Again

BY // 06.20.21

Framber Valdez takes postgame questions wearing a sleeveless blackish gray shirt and striking bright white Under Armour headband. It’s the garb of a pitcher who always puts in the work, post starts included. But the guns out, biceps look is fitting for another reason on this night.

For the Houston Astros are showing their guns too, proving that the most consistently elite team in the American League since 2015 is still right at that level. In fact, with Valdez making a miraculously determined return from an injury that would have sidelined most other pitchers for much longer, the Astros are starting to look like the best team in the league again.

For most of this season, that notion would have been quickly dismissed. The Astros come in eighth in both ESPN and USA Today’s latest MLB Power rankings. As recently as May 10, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Co. were deemed only the 11th best team in baseball.

Now? No one’s picking the Astros for 11th.

Houston’s beaten the Chicago White Sox in three straight games by a combined 19 to 6 margin. The same White Sox who came into Minute Maid Park with the AL’s top record. Tony La Russa’s team does not enjoy that distinction anymore. And the White Sox may have lost some of their confidence too.

These Astros — and yes, they’re the same new Astros — can do that to teams. Especially ones not as used to the big game world as they are.

“We’re very confident in this lineup and how we approach everybody,” Astros outfielder Michael Brantley says. “And we’re swinging the bats really well right now.”

There were first round knockout Mike Tyson fights that were more competitive than this series so far. La Russa must feel even more out of touch than usual after the third straight loss — a 7-3 Valdez authored flex. Is there an unwritten rule of baseball about good teams getting their butts kicked?

Even without all-star third baseman Alex Bregman, who is going t0 be out for a significant period of time, and Kyle Tucker, who finds himself stuck on the COVID-19 injured list until Monday, the Astros are taking it to the team that started this series deemed to be the second best team in all of baseball by ESPN.

Now? The A’s have more wins than the White Sox (43-28). And the Astros (42-28) look more dangerous.

“We’ve got a great group of guys that are mentally very tough,” says Robel Garcia, the fringe Big Leaguer who had the Astros biggest hit of the entire night — a two out, three-run double off the right field wall. “I don’t think we let any of the stuff that happens around us affect us.

“The fans — or anything like that. Especially Correa and Altuve and those guys. . . . It’s a really a great group of guys.”

That group includes Garcia, who’s never enjoyed the benefits of a regular role in the Majors, and Framber Valdez, the smiling assassin of a pitcher who populates his starts with almost as many grins and laughs as sliders. And why not?

Through the help of his personal psychologist, Valdez has found that when he stays relaxed on the mound, he can stress hitters completely out with his stuff. Hence, the smiling and laughing while he pitches.

“When I’m laughing, when I’m smiling, things like that, it’s just to keep myself relaxed,” Valdez says. “To make sure I’m maintaining a good rhythm out there on the mound. When you get uncomfortable in certain situations, that’s when things can kind of get in a bad way.”

Michael Brantley, who almost became a Toronto Blue Jay in the offseason, is now leading the American League in batting average (.338) for the Astros going into Father’s Day.

Framber Valdez looks more relaxed than a socialite on a spa day when he’s on the mound now. Since returning from a fractured finger that some thought could end his season, Valdez is 4-0 with a 1.67 ERA in five starts. He is starting to look like the near dominant ace the Astros did not know they’d have.

“It’s truly a blessing and a miracle to get him back as soon as we did,” Astros manager Dusty Baker says. “And the fact that he’s having success. He thinks he can pitch. We think he can pitch. Confidence is everything.”

The American League’s New Power (With Framber Valdez) is the Old Power

It turns out that this Houston team never lost its confidence — or its well-earned mojo. The Astros have made the American League Championship Series every year since 2017. They have been in two of the last four World Series.

Now, with this season speeding towards the halfway point, the Astros are proving that they belong in that conversation again.

“We’re putting up some runs,” Brantley says. “Having competitive at-bats daily. So it’s fun.”

Brantley, who almost became a Toronto Blue Jay in the offseason, is now leading the American League in batting average (.338) for the Astros going into Father’s Day.

Michael Brantley Astros
Michael Brantley may be one of the most underrated players in all of baseball. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

It’s a fun time to be a Houston Astro. In front of the largest Minute Maid Park crowd of 2021 (35,210), Baker’s team shows off all its power in a Saturday night party. This is a team that loves the big moment — and it has grabbed this measuring stick series by the throat.

The Astros are embracing the moment and a big stage series. The White Sox are struggling to keep up.

Chicago’s thrown its two lights-out aces at Houston — Carlos Rodon and Lance Lynn — and lost both games. Instead, the Astros are the ones who’ve had three straight starters (Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Framber Valdez) go at least seven innings and give up two earned runs or less.

These Astros may suddenly have the strongest six-man rotation in the world. Of course, having baseball’s most complete offense helps.

“We’re very confident in this lineup and how we approach everybody. And we’re swinging the bats really well right now.” — Michael Brantley

As usual, Jose Altuve gets the Astros going. He beats out an infield single to leadoff the bottom of the first and scores the game’s first run on a wild pitch. He also scores the Astros’ second run, lacing a double into the left field corner and coming home on a simple Brantley single.

That’s Altuve, the driving force behind one of baseball’s best teams. Once again.

You can keep your power rankings. The Astros are more interested in winning big games. Not one of the best teams in the league? Think again.

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