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Framber Valdez, ‘totally focused’ after sluggish start to ALCS, carries Houston Astros to 3-2 lead



BOSTON — As Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker walked out of the dugout in the middle of the fifth inning, Framber Valdez felt surprised.

Entering the fourth inning, Valdez was no-hitting Boston, rolling through the Red Sox lineup as Houston clung to a 1-0 lead in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series. But a single by Boston third baseman Rafael Devers broke up the no-no bid and a hit-by-pitch of designated hitter J.D. Martinez increased the inning’s stakes with Boston’s go-ahead run standing on first base.

Valdez turned towards the bullpen as Baker approached the mound, checking to see if a reliever was warming up behind him.

He saw nobody there.

“Alright,” Valdez said to himself. “Well, this is alright.”

With the balance of the ALCS hanging, Baker pulled his pitcher in close.

“Frambioso,” Baker said. “Man, you’re the best. Just be natural and just do you thing.”

Valdez lived up to the word of his skipper, inducing a double play from Red Sox right fielder Hunter Renfroe and escaping the inning’s trouble by getting Boston left fielder Alex Verdugo to sharply ground out to first baseman Yuli Gurriel.

The moment represented the most tenuous for Houston on the evening as Valdez cruised through eight innings, allowing three hits, one run while striking out five and walking one in the most important start of his career, becoming the second visiting starter to go eight or more innings and allow three or fewer hits in a playoff game at Fenway, joining Bob Gibson, who accomplished the feat in Game 7 of the 1967 World Series.

“I just have to give thanks to God, first of all,” Valdez said through a translator. “I’ve asked God so much to be able to be part of this team and to be able to help out this team in a manner, to have them on my shoulders. I am going to keep working to maintain it like that.”

The start represented a moment of redemption. Valdez struggled through his first outing in Game 1 of the ALCS, going 2.2 innings, allowing six hits and two earned runs while walking three batters and striking out two. After the outing, Valdez told his teammates that he would go at least seven innings in his next start to make up for his poor performance.

“I felt humiliated after that first outing,” Valdez said. “I set my mind on not letting that happen again.”

In the process, he became the first Astros pitcher to complete eight innings in a postseason game since Gerrit Cole went the same distance against the Rays in Game 5 of the 2019 ALDS. Coming into Wednesday night’s contest, Baker hoped Valdez would command his entire arsenal of pitchers, generate ground balls in order to improve his performance while not forcing his breaking ball on his hitters. Baker got exactly what he wanted. Valdez leaned on his sinker — which averaged 93.7 mph — throughout the course of the evening, accounting for 65 percent of his 93 pitches on the evening.

The Astros starter received seven of his 12 swings-and-misses on his curveball, which he located with precision throughout the performance, the longest start by a pitcher in the postseason this year.

“Seems like he put [the Game 1 start] behind him,” Baker said. “He had a good tempo going. He didn’t mess around forcing that breaking ball, like he had the last couple starts, and then getting behind, he was attacking the strike zone.”

Following Boston’s strong offensive performances in the first three games of the series, the Red Sox struggled to generate opportunities to strike back at the Astros. The team’s only run game in the seventh inning on a laser home run by Rafael Devers, which brought the score to 7-1.

“Their guy was amazing,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “He was throwing harder than usual. The ball was moving. We didn’t hit the ball hard at all. … Credit to him. His sinker was unreal tonight. Unreal. You tip your hat to him and you move forward.”

Valdez credited his mindfulness practices after the game as one of the factors in his strong performance. After he returned to the dugout following the rocky start to the fifth inning, Valdez closed his eyes and began meditating, which he turns to when he needs to mentally reset. The process, which he started with his psychologist Andy Nuñez in the Dominican Republic, helps him control his emotions and visualize the success he hopes to achieve on the mound.

“That’s something that every time that I’ve used it, it’s worked for me 100 percent,” Valdez said. “My emotions don’t get out of hand. I don’t get in an altered state at all and I feel totally focused on what I need to do. That’s something I have been working on a lot and something that really centers me and allows me to be calm out there.”

The start from Valdez puts Houston in control of their destiny as they head back home with two opportunities to clinch a World Series berth in front of their fans at Minute Maid Park. A victory in Game 6 or a potential Game 7 would mark the third World Series appearance for Houston in the last five years, with the last two coming in 2017 and 2019.

In order to take control of the series and neutralize the potent Boston offense, the Astros needed a career-best start from their starting pitcher.

“This was in the hands of Framber,” Baker said.

And in his hands, the Astros now find themselves one win away from a chance at the franchise’s second World Series title.

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MLB Players Association to make counteroffer to league in Monday meeting



The Major League Baseball Players Association plans to make an in-person labor proposal to the league on Monday, sources told ESPN, countering MLB’s offer last week that did little to loosen the gridlock that has gripped the sport after the league locked out the players Dec. 2.

Should the players’ offer do little to advance the negotiations that thus far haven’t yielded any substantive progress, the scheduled start to spring training in mid-February will grow that much unlikelier. And the longer discussions on a new collective-bargaining agreement last, the more they jeopardize Opening Day on March 31.

The gap between the players and league remains significant, with the union seeking major financial gains in a number of areas and owners trying to hold firm with what they currently pay in salaries. Other issues players have said remain a priority include anti-tanking measures and fixing service-time manipulation.

Any concessions players make in their offer could provide a roadmap to the negotiations. Before implementing the lockout, the league asked the union to drop three areas of discussion: earlier free agency for players, salary arbitration after two years instead of three and changes to the revenue-sharing plan. The union did not agree to the condition when presented with it Dec. 1, and the league left the bargaining table, locking out the players hours later.

Forty-three days later, the league returned to the union with an offer that included paying players with two to three years of service based on a formula, slight modifications to the draft lottery it previously had proposed and a mechanism that would reward teams with draft picks when top prospects who started on opening day rosters win awards.

The proposal did little to entice players, who after losing financial ground during the previous labor agreement want to make gains this time around.

News of the MLBPA’s expected counterproposal was first reported by The Associated Press

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Robot umpires at home plate moving up to Triple-A for 2022, one step away from major league baseball



NEW YORK — Robot umpires have been given a promotion and will be just one step from the major leagues this season. Major League Baseball is expanding its automated strike zone experiment to Triple-A, the highest level of the minor leagues.

MLB’s website posted a hiring notice seeking seasonal employees to operate the Automated Ball-Strike system. MLB said it is recruiting employees to operate the system for the Albuquerque Isotopes, Charlotte Knights, El Paso Chihuahuas, Las Vegas Aviators, Oklahoma City Dodgers, Reno Aces, Round Rock Express, Sacramento River Cats, Salt Lake Bees, Sugar Land Skeeters and Tacoma Rainiers.

The independent Atlantic League became the first American professional league to let a computer call balls and strikes at its All-Star Game in July 2019 and experimented with ABS during the second half of that season. The system also was used in the Arizona Fall League for top prospects in 2019, drawing complaints of its calls on breaking balls.

There were no minor leagues in 2020 because of the pandemic, and robot umps were used last season in eight of nine ballparks at the Low-A Southeast League.

The Major League Baseball Umpires Association agreed in its labor contract that started in 2020 to cooperate and assist if commissioner Rob Manfred decides to use the system at the major league level.

“It’s hard to handicap if, when or how it might be employed at the major league level, because it is a pretty substantial difference from the way the game is called today,” Chris Marinak, MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer, said last March.

MLB said the robot umpires will be used at some spring training ballparks in Florida, will remain at Low A Southeast and could be used at non-MLB venues.

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Tampa Bay Rays say split-season plan with Montreal rejected by MLB



ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Rays‘ proposed plan to split the season between Florida and Montreal has been rejected by Major League Baseball.

Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg announced the news on Thursday.

“Today’s news is flat-out deflating,” Sternberg said.

The idea of playing in both the Tampa Bay area and Montreal has been discussed over the past several years after attempts to build a new full-time ballpark locally failed.

Montreal had a big league team from 1969, when the expansion Expos began play, through 2004. The Expos moved to Washington and became the Nationals for the 2005 season.

The Rays’ lease at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the team has played since its inaugural season in 1998, expires after the 2027 season.

Since Sternberg took control in October 2005, the once-struggling franchise has been a success on the field but not at the box office.

Despite reaching the World Series in 2008 and 2020, the Rays have annually ranked near the bottom in attendance. The Rays averaged about 9,500 for home games last season, 28th in the majors and ahead of only Miami and Oakland.

St. Petersburg mayor Ken Welch feels a new stadium in his city remains a possibility. Governmental officials have been working on a redevelopment plan for the Tropicana Field site.

“We are working with our county partners and city council to put together the best plan possible, which will work in conjunction with my planned evolution of the Tropicana Field master development proposals,” Welch said in a statement. “With this collaborative approach, I am confident we can partner with the Tampa Bay Rays to create a new and iconic full-time home for Major League Baseball in St. Petersburg while also achieving historic equitable economic growth.”

Sternberg said the team will definitely explore options in the Tampa Bay area.

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