Miguel Castro and Mychal Givens are no longer part of the Orioles’ bullpen after they were traded on consecutive days. It creates opportunities for Tanner Scott, Hunter Harvey and Dillon Tate, promising pitchers eager to prove themselves.
It also means a chance for a 35-year-old junkballer, who’s pitched professionally in no fewer than five countries and one commonwealth.
César Valdez, whose minor league signing in January drew shrugs from the baseball community, has shown that he could be as valuable to the Orioles’ bullpen as those young fireballers.
Valdez threw two innings, allowing an unearned run on one hit, in the Orioles’ exciting 11-inning win over the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday at Sahlen Field in Buffalo. The victory ended a five-game losing streak.
It was his second appearance in the last three games. On Saturday night, Valdez pitched three scoreless innings, allowing just one hit and striking out five with an assortment of slow and slower pitches.
In Monday’s game, Hyde brought Valdez in for the 10th inning of a 2-2 tie. After Joe Panik, the automatic runner who starts the inning at second, moved to third on an infield out, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde held a mound conference and summoned Ryan Mountcastle from the outfield as a fifth infielder.
The strategy worked as Cavan Biggio grounded out to third baseman Rio Ruiz.
“I could tell he was fired up,” Hyde said. “He’s the perfect guy for a five-man infield because he’s going to get out in front swings and ahead in the at-bat ground balls, so that worked out well. He was fantastic.”
Thanks to a terrific catch-and-throw by shortstop José Iglesias that caught Lourdes Gurriel sliding into home for the final out, Valdez earned his first major league win since July 25, 2017.
He was with the Blue Jays then, and that win was only his second. His first came on May 3, 2010 with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Three wins in 10 years and nearly four months.
In a career that began in 2006, Valdez has pitched for teams in the U.S., Canada, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Mexico, where the Orioles discovered him.
“It’s been a long road after so many years of hard work, dedication, a lot of sweat and tears,” Valdez said through a translator in a video conference call on Sunday.
“It finally paid off. I never lost faith that I could make it again and here I am today, so I’m very thankful for the opportunity.”
Valdez’s first outing with the Orioles came in a 5-0 loss to Toronto. After the game, Hyde said the players looked tired, but not Valdez, for whom Hyde had praise.
“It’s been one of the best days of my life, my career,” Valdez said.
Hyde can identify with Valdez’s struggle. As an undrafted free agent, he played all of nine games in Triple-A and didn’t coach in the major leagues until June 23, 2010, several weeks after Valdez’s first major league win.
“That was a cool moment,” Hyde said after Saturday night’s game. “For as blah as that game was, to watch what he did for those three innings. That was a lot of fun.”
Valdez was throwing mostly changeups, many of which were misidentified on Statcast as curveballs.
“That has happened to be me before,” Valdez said. “A lot of times, they’re not able to identify my changeup. They call it a slider but, yes, that was my case [Saturday] night. Most of my pitches were changeups. It’s my go-to pitch, the one I’m most comfortable with, and the one that gets me out of my jam most of the time.”
Valdez, who had a 7.63 ERA in 2017 with the Blue Jays and Oakland, went off to Mexico to try to resuscitate his career.
He was 15-2 with a 2.26 ERA with 162 strikeouts and just 21 walks last year for Yucatan.
“At the beginning, it was very tough,” Valdez said of his time in the Mexican League. “But then after a while, I started getting accustomed to it. At the end of the day, they provided an opportunity for me to get a job and to continue to support my family. That’s what I wanted to do, to continue to support my family, continue to be active so that teams can see me pitch.”
His motivation in recent years came from his late father, who died in 2015.
“He was one of the people that always told me to keep trying, to never give up,” Valdez said. “You never know what could happen, keep on going. I really wanted to do it for him and for myself, to continue to keep trying and keep pushing and despite that unfortunate circumstance, try to achieve something for me and my family.”
Valdez was signed to a minor league contract on January 10th but wasn’t given an invitation to spring training. He was regularly brought along as an extra arm for Grapefruit League games and pitched so well that he was added to the Orioles’ summer training roster.
“Some people that had seen him pitch in winter ball last year said, ‘Hey you really need to take a look at him in a big league spring training game,’” Hyde said.
“Then when we did, and then when we had our summer camp meetings, his name kept coming up … Finally he gets here, and gets to pitch in a major league game [Saturday] night against a really good lineup and wiggle out of a jam in the first inning and then go two innings after that. He’s a great story, and he’s extremely appreciative. I know he’s really proud to be here.”
Mexican League relievers in their mid-30s are not in demand.
“The Orioles were among the very few teams that were interested in my services,” Valdez said. “They have provided me with such a great opportunity. The only thing I want to do is take advantage of it and try to pay them back. It’s a great feeling, and I’m very thankful to be here.”