October 5, 2022

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Taste of postseason? Astros drop tight series in Toronto

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Valdez tosses 6 1/3 strong innings, but quiet offense costly in pitchers’ duel
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TORONTO — The first day of May felt a lot like October. 

The Astros and Blue Jays closed out their three-game series on Sunday with the type of intensity from a back-and-forth pitching duel that is often reserved for the postseason. 

Framber Valdez and Kevin Gausman exchanged zeros until the sixth inning of the Astros’ eventual 3-2 defeat at Rogers Centre. Sunday’s loss officially handed Houston a losing record against Toronto, a result that may have major seeding implications come postseason time. 

“It’s two of the best teams in baseball competing against each other,” said Alex Bregman, who came into Sunday’s contest in the ninth as a pinch-hitter and almost changed the course of the game. “It’s a high level of baseball being played. And it’s fun competing against such a great team like them. … Definitely wouldn’t be surprised to play against them again this year.”

Just like nearly every other game between the Astros and Blue Jays this season, the rubber match was close until the end, filled with decisive details and highlight plays factoring into the final result.

It all started with the pitching.

Valdez, who has seen peaks and valleys in his first handful of starts this season, carried a no-hitter through 5 2/3 innings, using his trusted sinker and occasional changeups to generate one ground ball after another against a Blue Jays lineup featuring plenty of pop. He allowed just three runs on two hits and two walks, striking out two in 6 1/3 innings of work.

On the other side, Gausman gave Toronto seven innings of two-run ball with 10 strikeouts and no walks.

“My emotions became stronger, my will became stronger,” Valdez said of the pitching duel with Gausman. “It’s a challenge. If he put up a zero, I wanted to put up a zero. I wanted to do better than him. Baseball means challenge. And I felt good, because I was competing. And competing is the most important thing.”

But just like the Astros did with Gausman, the Blue Jays made the most of the few scoring opportunities they got.

Valdez hit Bradley Zimmer with a pitch in the sixth and had his no-no bid broken up by Bo Bichette, who launched a two-run homer to right field on a sinker outside the zone.

“It was a well-located pitch, and he made good contact,” said Valdez. “I mean, that’s baseball.”

Bichette’s homer off a good pitch was just one example of Houston’s lack of lucky bounces on Sunday.

Pinch-hitting for Niko Goodrum in the ninth, Bregman put up a 10-pitch at-bat against Blue Jays closer Jordan Romano that ended with a sharp line drive to right field that had the look of an extra-base hit off his bat.

But who else was there but George Springer, who read the ball perfectly from the start and chased it all the way to the warning track, turning a chance at getting a runner in scoring position into the second out of the inning with a heroic dive.

“Squared the ball up to the wrong guy,” said Bregman. “I’ve seen him make that catch so many times. He’s fearless, he plays so hard all the time. … He made a game-saving play.”

All but one of the Astros’ encounters with the Blue Jays this season turned out to be one-run games. During the three games in Toronto, Houston outhit the home team, 30-22, with Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez leading the way in big moments.

Still, there was no margin for error.

Gausman left nothing to chance on Sunday, adding to a historic stretch of 31 2/3 innings without issuing a single walk or home run in five starts this year.

“Boy, these games have been hard-fought games, every one of them, when we played these guys,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker. “But that’s OK. We’re on the way.”

It may well have been a taste of things to come later in the year, but there’s a long and winding road ahead. The Astros, now an even 11-11, return home for a crucial three-game series against the Mariners.

The bus ride to Buffalo, N.Y., followed by a three-hour flight back to Houston should give them some time to turn the page.

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