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HOUSTON — The moment met Framber Valdez on the night of Oct. 20, in the fourth inning of the second game of the American League Championship Series, with the Houston Astros leading and the New York Yankees threatening as a result of Valdez’s own mistakes. Valdez had bobbled a slowly hit comebacker, then stumbled upon retrieving the baseball and thrown wildly to first base, placing two runners in scoring position and bringing the tying run to the batter’s box.

Astros pitching coach Bill Murphy looked on with heightened awareness. Murphy had coached Valdez through various junctures of his development, marveling at his command but noting the ways it wavered. In the early part of Valdez’s career, traffic would rattle him. Frustration would set in, focus would drift and starts would unravel. But Valdez had spent the last three years studying his own psychology and embracing meditation, an approach many — including him — have credited for his rise as one of the sport’s best, most consistent starting pitchers. In this moment, against the Yankees, awaited his biggest test to date.

“In that moment I thought to myself, ‘This is the true test of where he’s at,'” Murphy recalled. “This is where it can unravel.”

Alex Bregman walked over to the mound from third base; Martin Maldonado followed with a visit from behind home plate. Valdez accepted blame and kept three thoughts present.

Breathe. Smile. Relax.

Valdez retired 12 of the next 14 batters he faced, allowing those two baserunners to score but giving up nothing else in what would become a dazzling seven-inning victory. In the culmination of years of progress, he had met the kind of moment that so often ruined him and persevered.

His next start, in Game 2 of the World Series on Saturday night, will bring another of those moments. This one comes 10 days after the first, with his team in crisis, having blown a five-run lead in an extra-inning Game 1 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Astros, a 106-win juggernaut in the regular season that went unbeaten through the first two playoff rounds, can ill afford an 0-2 series deficit with three games following in Philadelphia. They need Valdez to pitch like an ace in his matchup against Zack Wheeler. They need him to keep meeting moments. He believes he can.

“I feel really proud in that what I’m doing now reflects the progress that I’ve made,” Valdez said in Spanish. “You see the difference in my starts, in the way I conduct myself.”

Valdez, 28, was a struggling long reliever through his first two seasons in 2018 and 2019. He issued 68 walks and hit eight batters in a stretch of 107⅔ innings, struggling to lock down a consistent role and often buckling at the first signs of trouble. Heading into the 2020 season, the Astros’ director of Latin American operations, Caridad Cabrera, insisted that Valdez work with the team’s psychologist, Dr. Andy Nunez.

Valdez was initially hesitant, assuming that psychologists worked only on mental health issues. “But I eventually learned that’s not the case,” he said. “They’re there to help your mindset, to help you focus, to help you stay in the right frame of mind.”

Nunez taught Valdez techniques for mediation and controlling his breathing in stressful situations. It took about five months for Nunez’s concepts to begin translating onto the field, Valdez said, and even then the progress was gradual. Lapses in focus weren’t completely eliminated, but they became shorter. He started to control his anger when softly hit balls turned into hits, started learning how to distance himself from factors outside of his control.

In 2020 and 2021, Valdez posted a 3.29 ERA in 205⅓ innings, establishing himself as a fixture in a talented Astros rotation. In 2022, he reached a new level. Valdez — a ground ball master armed with a hellacious curveball and a devastating sinker, a rare mix for a left-handed pitcher — went 17-6 with a 2.82 ERA in an American League-leading 201⅓ innings. He threw a shutout, pitched in the All-Star Game, set a major league record with 25 consecutive quality starts and placed himself in the discussion for a Cy Young Award that will likely be won by his teammate Justin Verlander.

“It seems as if we all want finished products before they’re even finished,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “It takes time. It takes trial and error. It takes success and it takes some failures to get to this point. The more success that you have, the more confidence you have. Right now Framber’s at a very high level of confidence.”

It’s a stark change from eight years ago, when Valdez’s confidence was at its lowest point. He was an unsigned Dominican pitcher who had recently turned 21 years old, ancient in an international market that often sees players agree to deals at 12 and 13. Six teams had previously committed to signing him but pulled out after concerns with his medicals.

Said Valdez: “I felt like nobody wanted me.”

The Astros proved him wrong.

It was 2015, late one spring afternoon. Former Astros scouting supervisor Roman Ocumarez and former area scout David Brito were doing routes on the eastern part of the Dominican Republic. They had already visited four facilities, and the sun was setting, but Brito said they needed to see about an older kid with an intriguing breaking ball. They arrived at a darkening field, set up an “L” screen behind the catcher and placed Valdez on the mound.

When the first curveball his hand, Ocumarez thought the baseball was headed for his face. He quickly ducked out the way and watched it cut back over the heart of home plate for a strike. Ocumarez, reached by phone, was asked if he has ever seen a curveball that sharp from a pitcher that raw.

“No señor,” he said, then kept going back to the phrase. “No señor, no señor, no señor.”

Ocumarez and Brito limited Valdez’s initial workout to only a dozen pitches, then had him do the same from their facility the following morning. Ocumarez committed to signing him. He had him wait three days to take his physical in hopes that any worrisome inflammation in his elbow would subside and the doctors would clear him.

“The physical came back normal,” Ocumarez said. “He was destined for us.”

The Astros find themselves in the World Series for the fourth time in a stretch of six years, a feat made even more impressive by the seemingly arbitrary outcomes that have become more prevalent in an era of expanded postseason fields. In the time since their first, scandal-riddled championship in 2017, the Astros have lost megastars such as Gerrit Cole, Carlos Correa and George Springer and have found a way to remain dominant. The extension of their window is largely a testament to the development of players the industry tends to overlook, exemplified by Valdez, Cristian Javier, Jose Urquidy and Luis Garcia, key cogs within an elite pitching staff who were obtained on well-below-market deals.

Valdez is the best of them — and now he’ll face an even bigger test.

The lefty dominated the Boston Red Sox in his final ALCS start last October, but struggled mightily against the Atlanta Braves in his first World Series. He made two starts and gave up five runs through less than three innings in each of them, setting the stage for an upset.

He’s confident this time will be different.

“Now I understand that it’s the same game, the same hitters — I just have to study them and do what I do,” he said. “I also understand that things can go wrong. You can be the best ever and things are going to go wrong. I know how to handle that now.”

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