Red Sox

How Framber Valdez stifled the Red Sox’ bats in crucial Game 5

Valdez rebounded after a tough Game 1 against the Red Sox with an eight-inning gem in Game 5, giving the Astros a 3-2 lead in the ALCS.

Red Sox Astros ALCS
Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez strikes out against Astros pitcher Framber Valdez. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
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Coming into Game 5 of the ALCS Wednesday night, the Red Sox had torn through Houston Astros starting pitching all series.

Then, Framber Valdez put a stop to all that and gave the Astros the advantage as the series heads back to Houston for Game 6 on Friday.

Valdez became just the third pitcher in three seasons to throw eight or more innings in a playoff game, joining Clayton Kershaw and Steven Strasburg, with a five-strikeout, three-hit performance. He even took a perfect game through four innings and had a two-hit shutout going into the seventh before allowing a solo home run to Rafael Devers.

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That’s quite a rebound for the current Astros ace (with Lance McCullers Jr. out of the rotation), who couldn’t even make it through three innings in Game 1 of the series in Houston.

“Credit to (Valdez). His sinker was unreal tonight — unreal,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said after the game. “You tip your hat to him and you move forward.”

To be sure, Valdez’s sinker — his favorite pitch — certainly was working in Game 5 as was his overall command.

The Astros lefty couldn’t find the strike zone in Game 1, surrendering three walks along with the six hits and three runs (two earned) he gave up over 2 2/3 innings pitched. When he did put the ball in the zone, he missed his spots, and the Red Sox made him pay.

That wasn’t happening in Game 5 as Valdez pounded the strike zone with sinker after sinker and then threw knee-buckling curveballs to keep the Sox off-balance.

Boston especially seemed to have trouble with Valdez’s curveball.

According to Baseball Savant, the Red Sox actually hit Valdez’s sinker harder in Game 5 (average exit velocity of 93.7 mph; max exit velo. of 113.7 mph) than they did in Game 1 (avg. exit velo: 85 mph; max. exit velo: 112.5 mph).

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But the Sox couldn’t touch Valdez’s curve, which earned strike calls or whiffs at a seven percent higher clip than in Game 1.

Boston hitters also struggled to elevate the ball, with 13 of the 20 batters that put the ball in play against Valdez hitting groundballs — two of them were double plays.

What’s more, Valdez’s pitches simply had more juice on them in Game 5, with his average velocity on his sinker and curveball being higher both than they were in Game 1 and well above his average velocities for the season.

Bottom line: he was on his game, and the Red Sox were just no match, aside from Rafael Devers touching him up for a solo home run (one of just three Red Sox hits off Valdez all game).

Curiously, the Red Sox weren’t necessarily less patient against Valdez this time around. They actually swung at the exact same percentage of the starter’s pitches (25 percent) in Games 1 and 5.

This time, they just couldn’t square him up consistently. When they did, it was too often on the ground where the Astros defense could suck it up and make a play.

If the Red Sox want to extend the ALCS past Friday, they’ll need to get back to what they’ve done well this postseason: get the ball in the air and out of the ballpark. They lead all postseason teams by a wide margin in home runs (21) and slugging percentage (.544) — Houston is second in both categories with 11 home runs and a .438 slugging percentage.

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In short: ball go far, team go far. If the ball goes short again Friday, the team goes home.

And if they happen to make it to Game 7 in Houston, they should be prepared to see Valdez again at some point in that contest. For their sake, they’d better have an improved plan of attack if they see the lefty on the bump across from them again.

Either that, or hope he makes more mistakes than he did Wednesday.

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