Fall Classic fixture Morton faces World Series newbie Valdez

Sports

Atlanta Braves starting pitcher Charlie Morton speaks during a news conference Monday, Oct. 25, 2021, in Houston, in preparation for Game 1 of baseball’s World Series tomorrow between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

HOUSTON (AP) — Though the uniform keeps changing, Charlie Morton is becoming a Fall Classic fixture, set to start in the World Series for the third time in five seasons this week.

Houston Astros lefty Framber Valdez is virtually unknown to a national audience, with the 27-year-old poised to make his Series debut when he pitches against Morton and the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 on Tuesday night.

Asked to describe himself to those who might be seeing him on the mound for the first time, the burly Valdez flashed a huge grin before answering.

“I think of myself as a happy man,” he said in Spanish through a translator. “I’ve had a lot of problems in the past, but I’ve known how to get past those and overcome those to get to where I am today. It’s just been a lot of sacrifice and hard work.”

Morton pitched for Houston from 2017-18, winning Game 7 of the 2017 World Series in relief at Dodger Stadium. He’s trying to approach this start just like any of the other 306 in his 14-year career and not be distracted by his history with the Astros.

“But I’m sure I’m going to feel some things when I get on that mound,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any way not to.”

Though it’s been three years since he left Houston and he’s on his second team since then, the veteran right-hander remains a favorite of many Astros. All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve was asked what kind of teammate Morton was.

“The best you can ever have,” Altuve said. “He’s that good. He’s amazing. I only have good things to say about him.”

This will be the second consecutive year Morton will face the Astros in the postseason after a dominant performance against them with Tampa Bay. Morton threw five scoreless innings to win Game 2 of the 2020 AL Championship Series before pitching scoreless ball into the sixth inning of Game 7 for the win that sent the Rays to last year’s World Series.

“He got us good last year,” Houston third baseman Alex Bregman said, shaking his head before adding that Morton is “one of everybody’s favorite teammates of all-time.”

Told of those comments from Altuve and Bregman, Morton dropped his head and pooched out his lip, looking like a sad kid before responding.

“I’m really humbled that they would say that,” he said before a long pause. “That’s pretty great.”

Tuesday will mark Morton’s 16th postseason start and 17th appearance. The only relief outing came in Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, when he took over in the sixth and allowed one run in four innings to shut the door on the Dodgers and secure Houston’s only championship.

Morton, who turns 38 next month, was a 14-game winner in his first year with the Braves and tied for the major league lead with 33 starts. Tuesday will be his fourth start of this postseason after taking the loss in Game 1 of the NLDS against Milwaukee and not getting a decision in Game 4 of that series or Game 3 of the NLCS.

Valdez made his postseason debut in last year’s pandemic-shortened season and was key to Houston’s playoff run. He came on in relief and won the first-round opener against Minnesota before pitching Houston to victory in a Game 2 start in the Division Series versus rival Oakland. Valdez lost the opening game of the ALCS but bounced back by allowing one run and striking out nine in a Game 6 win to keep Houston’s season alive.

He had a tough start to the postseason this year and permitted a combined seven runs over seven innings in two starts — one in the Division Series and one in the ALCS — before spinning a gem in his most recent outing.

Valdez gave up just three hits and one run across eight innings in a win over the Red Sox at Fenway Park to give the Astros a 3-2 lead in the series and save a taxed bullpen.

As he prepares to pitch on baseball’s biggest stage, Valdez can hardly believe how far he’s come since signing with the Astros out of the Dominican Republic in 2015.

“Back in 2014 and 2015 I wouldn’t have thought of being a starter in Game 1 of the World Series, but now it’s real and I appreciate it,” he said. “It’s just a privilege.”

Asked about the difference between his two starts in the ALCS, Valdez said he found a way to rein in his excitement and not let the moment get too big for him.

“For me it’s a matter of controlling my emotions, controlling the adrenaline,” he said. “Just worry about executing my pitches, throwing my pitches with intensity and not trying to be too perfect with everything and just let the results follow from there.”

The Astros need him to build on his last big game to help stabilize a pitching staff that will be without top starter Lance McCullers in the World Series. McCullers was sidelined for the ALCS after straining a muscle in his forearm in Game 4 of the Division Series, and announced Monday he won’t return this season.

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