For­mer Astros killed in crash

Val­buena, Castillo die in ac­ci­dent on Venezue­lan road

Houston Chronicle - - SPORTS - By Chan­dler Rome

Luis Val­buena, the charis­matic, bat-flip­ping third base­man who played an in­te­gral part on the Astros’ 2015 wild-card team, died in a car ac­ci­dent fol­low­ing a win­ter ball game in his na­tive Venezuela on Thurs­day, along with fel­low for­mer Astro Jose Castillo.

The news was con­firmed by the Car­di­nals of Lara, a Venezue­lan win­ter ball team for whom both men played a game on Thurs­day. Val­buena was 33 and Castillo was 37.

“The Astros fam­ily lost two young men yesterday, en­tirely too soon,” the or­ga­ni­za­tion said in a state­ment Fri­day morn­ing. “Dur­ing his two sea­sons in Hous­ton, Luis was an ex­tremely pop­u­lar player with his team­mates and the Astros staff. He was a pro­duc­tive player on the field and played a key role in the Astros run to the post­sea­son in 2015. Off the field, he was a warm and friendly pres­ence to all who in­ter­acted with him. Jose’s time with the Astros was brief, but he also had a pos­i­tive im­pact on those around him. Our thoughts and prayers are with their fam­i­lies and friends.”

Ac­cord­ing to re­ports in Venezuela, the car trans­port­ing Val­buena and Castillo hit a rock in the road. Four men were ar­rested in con-

nec­tion with the ac­ci­dent, Julio Leon Here­dia — the gover­nor of Yaracuy — an­nounced Fri­day af­ter­noon.

Here­dia told meri­dano.com that the four men were found with some of Val­buena’s and Castillo’s be­long­ings. Here­dia said­crim­i­nals or gangs of­ten place large rocks in the mid­dle of the street in hopes of over­turn­ing ve­hi­cles and rob­bing those in­side.

Nei­ther Val­buena nor Castillo was wear­ing a seat­belt. Both were ejected from the ve­hi­cle, ac­cord­ing to on­site re­ports.

For­mer ma­jor league in­fielder Car­los Rivero sur­vived the ac­ci­dent. The car was driven by Rivero’s chauf­feur, who also sur­vived, ac­cord­ing to Beis­bol­Play.com. The car was bound for Bar­quisimeto — a city in north­west Venezuela.

“This is a very sad day for our sport as we mourn the deaths of Luis Val­buena and José Castillo,” MLB com­mis­sioner Rob Man­fred said in a state­ment. “It is clear by all the sto­ries to­day that they loved base­ball and made an im­pact on their team­mates and the Clubs they rep­re­sented. On be­half of Ma­jor League Base­ball, I ex­tend my deep­est con­do­lences to their fam­i­lies, friends and fans, par­tic­u­larly those in their na­tive Venezuela.”

Ac­quired in a trade that sent Dex­ter Fowler to the Cubs, Val­buena ap­peared in 132 games and hit a ca­reer-high 25 home runs dur­ing the Astros’ 2015 sea­son, the first un­der man­ager A.J. Hinch and the fran­chise’s first post­sea­son ap­pear­ance since 2005.

A ver­sa­tile de­fender who played both first and third base, Val­buena be­came known for his pro­nounced bat flips fol­low­ing any suc­cess­ful plate ap­pear­ance — even walks — and in­fec­tious smile that per­me­ated the club­house.

Trib­utes poured in from Val­buena’s for­mer Astros’ team­mates on Fri­day morn­ing. Jose Al­tuve, a Venezue­lan, posted pic­tures of both men on In­sta­gram with a Span­ish caption say­ing, “I can’t be­lieve what’s go­ing on.”

On Twit­ter, pitcher Collin McHugh called him “such a huge piece of our suc­cess story. Part of a lengthy In­sta­gram post in Span­ish from Mar­win Gon­za­lez read, “You left this world with­out an en­emy be­cause your prin­ci­ples, your kind­ness and your charisma would not let you have it.”

In a state­ment, Astros gen­eral man­ager Jeff Luh­now called Val­buena one of “the hap­pi­est play­ers in base­ball.”

“I will miss Luis’ ban­ter, smile, gen­uine love for his team­mates, and, of course, the bat flips,” Hinch said in a state­ment. “He was a beloved per­son whether he was on our team or across the field. My thoughts and prayers are with his fam­ily and the lucky ones who could call him a team­mate or friend.”

Val­buena slashed .224/ .310/.438 in 2015 and started each of Hous­ton’s six post­sea­son games at third base. He hit a home run in the team’s Game 5, sea­so­nend­ing loss to the Roy­als in the Amer­i­can League Divi­sion Se­ries.

In 2016, Val­buena seemed des­tined for an­other ca­reer sea­son be­fore sus­tain­ing a sea­son-end­ing ham­string in­jury. In the 90 games be­fore the in­jury, which re­quired surgery, Val­buena had 13 home runs and hit .260.

Val­buena played 222 ca­reer games as an Astro.

“Luis was al­ways smil­ing and was one of the hap­pi­est play­ers in base­ball,” Luh­now said. “He pro­vided joy to his team­mates and our fans. He helped our fran­chise turn a cor­ner in 2015 and pro­vided many cher­ished me­mories. We will for­ever re­mem­ber him.”

The An­gels signed Val­buena as a free agent fol­low­ing the 2016 sea­son. He played all of 2017 and part of 2018 in Los An­ge­les be­fore he was des­ig­nated for as­sign­ment and re­leased in Au­gust.

Castillo was a vet­eran of five ma­jor league sea­sons who ended his ca­reer with the Astros. The in­fielder played 15 games in Hous­ton be­fore leav­ing for the Mex­i­can League fol­low­ing the 2008 sea­son.

Castillo

Val­buena

Karen War­ren / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Luis Val­buena watches his two-run home run dur­ing a game in Hous­ton on July 6, 2016. Val­buena hit 25 home runs with the Astros dur­ing the 2015 sea­son.

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