Astros strike back to win Game 2 vs. Phillies, evening up World Series

HOUSTON – They were professional valleys for both players, even if Jose Altuve has 12 seasons and eight All-Star honors to his name, and Framber Valdez is still crafting his career narrative.

And Saturday night was the perfect time for Altuve and Valdez to emerge from their darkest times to save the Houston Astros in this World Series.

In danger of dropping the first two games at home to the ever-resistant Philadelphia Phillies, Altuve jumped the visitors on the very first offering from ace Zack Wheeler, setting off a first-pitch, first-inning lightning bolt that handed Valdez a healthy lead. And then the Astros’ lefty spun the Phillies into submission, dominating them with his curveball to take a shutout into the seventh inning.

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By night’s end, the Astros had registered a 5-2 victory to square this Series 1-1, a major burden lifted after Philadelphia erased a five-run deficit for a 6-5, 10-inning Game 1 win.

It was a shameful collapse for a franchise playing in its fourth World Series in six years. But the Astros evened things up in a hurry as two of their most indispensable players recovered from their own foibles.

For Altuve, October heroics are expected. He has 29 career multi-hit postseason games, which made his 0 for 25 skid – the worst hitless run of his career – to start these playoffs all the more startling. He was still just 3 for 37 entering Game 2, none of the hits of the well-struck variety.

That changed in an instant.

Jose Altuve celebrates Alex Bregman's fifth inning home run in Game 2.
Jose Altuve celebrates Alex Bregman's fifth inning home run in Game 2.

Altuve wailed on Wheeler’s first pitch, shipping a 96-mph sinker to left field for a double, his first extra-base hit to the pull side this postseason. And a pattern was quickly established.

No. 2 hitter Jeremy Peña: First-pitch curveball, RBI double.

No. 3 hitter Yordan Alvarez: First-pitch fastball fouled off, followed by another swing on a slider, knocking it the opposite way off the left field wall for another RBI double.

It was the first time in World Series history a team started a game with three consecutive extra-base hits.

And for the Astros, seeing the old Altuve back was almost as big a relief as squaring the series. He added singles in the fifth and seventh, the latter coming on a swing at a ball practically over his head.

"Early in the playoffs I was swinging at everything and then getting slowly better at swinging at my pitch," says Altuve. "And yeah, I got a hit on a pitch almost above my head today.

"But it's a hit, so it's good."

Says manager Dusty Baker of an Altuve breakout: "If I say it every day, it's got to happen one of these days. You know just how I feel about Altuve. His track record speaks for itself. I mean, he swung the bat great today. Boy, it was great to see. All the guys on the team were extremely happy for him.

"Hopefully he can continue and start to roll the way Altuve can roll."

Wheeler entered Game 2 with a 1.78 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 25 ⅓ innings this postseason, very much the playoff ace the Phillies hoped for. But the Astros never let him get comfortable. And in Game 2, Valdez would not yield the 5-0 lead he eventually received, as Game 1 starter Justin Verlander did the night before.

Framber Valdez celebrates in the dugout after coming out of the game in the seventh inning.
Framber Valdez celebrates in the dugout after coming out of the game in the seventh inning.

No, this is a new Valdez.

The old one was probably the player most culpable for Houston’s six-game loss to Atlanta in the 2021 World Series. Valdez started Games 1 and 5 and was terrible: A 19.29 ERA thanks to 10 earned runs in 4 ⅔ innings, four home runs allowed, a Game 1 loss and a gracious bailout by his teammates for a Game 5 no-decision.

But Valdez went to work on his focus and his repertoire, consulting a sports psychologist to keep him on point during games and adding a cut fastball to complement a 95-mph sinking fastball and curveball.

Oh, that curveball. It was particularly biting Saturday night.

Through five shutout innings, nine of Valdez’s 13 swings and misses came on his curve. It was particularly nasty on a fourth-inning strikeout of Phillies slugger Bryce Harper, during which Valdez showed him his cutter, a trio of 95-mph sinkers and finally a huge breaking ball that had Harper flailing.

Two innings later, his pitch count in the 90s, Valdez encountered Harper again, this time with two on. But Harper skidded a fastball right at Altuve, who initiated a 4-6-3 double play.

By then, Bregman’s third home run this postseason, a two-run shot that was also the sixth World Series homer of his career, staked Valdez to a 5-0 advantage.

He finished with nine strikeouts in 6⅓ innings, an inherited earned run scored. It nearly duplicated his seven-inning, nine-strikeout, no earned run effort in Game 2 of the ALCS.

This Game 2 was a decidedly different outcome than his two stumbles against Atlanta one year ago. And this one came while pitching in front of his father, who overcame a fear of flying to make it to Houston from the Dominican Republic.

"Definitely last year my emotions got the best of me," Valdez said after his sixth career postseason victory and second in as many starts, after striking out nine Yankees in seven innings of ALCS Game 2. "I wasn't able to throw even more than two innings without giving up a run. But those were things that I was able to learn, separate my emotions from my job being on the field. Whenever I'm on the field, on the mound, I just keep my emotions outside of the field, try to stay calm, collected.

"To have my dad here gives me a little bit of extra strength, and especially he's just used to seeing me pitch on TV, seeing guys like Altuve, Bregman, Peña on TV. Now he's able to see them in person. It means a lot. And, yeah, it means the world to me that he's here, that they're both here."

Still just 28 and with less than four years of service time, the Astros have witnessed Valdez come of age firsthand.

"I think it's his focus and his self-confidence," says Bregman. "I think he's confident in himself, he attacks, he knows that he's got good stuff. I think he has a lot of confidence in (catcher) Martín (Maldonado) and the pitches that he's calling."

The Astros didn’t need Altuve to progress, just rediscover his old self. His three hits in Game 2 give him 99 in the postseason, moving past Kenny Lofton, Chipper Jones and Albert Pujols to rank sixth all-time. Alvarez, meanwhile, doubled and walked after coming in on a 3-for-25, 10-strikeout skid.

If both are back, as the Astros know them, than a club that’s now 8-1 this postseason once again looks very dangerous as the Series shifts to Philly for Monday’s Game 3.

Philadelphia closed out the defending champion Braves in the NLDS and the San Diego Padres in the NLCS by winning five games at home. Theoretically, the Phillies could do the same to Houston next week.

"Obviously, we’d like to go back home up 2-0," says first baseman Rhys Hoskins, "but if you told us before the series started that we’d be able to steal a game here and have a win under our belt, guaranteeing three games at home, I think everybody would be pretty ecstatic tonight.

"We’ve been here before."

So, too, have the Astros. And it looks like all their old weapons are firing the way they'd like.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Astros strike back with Game 2 win to even World Series vs. Phillies