Regular season over, Astros aim to 'step up'

After sub-.500 finish, Houston heading to Minnesota for playoffs

September 28th, 2020

A tumultuous offseason gave way to a difficult regular season in which the Astros navigated through a ton of injuries and scrambled to make the playoffs, pulling it off despite finishing with a sub-.500 record (29-31) for the first time since 2014.

Houston finished the regular season with 16 losses in its final 24 games, capped by Sunday afternoon’s 8-4 defeat to Texas in the regular-season finale at Globe Life Field. The defending American League champions are the No. 6 seed and will open the best-of-three Wild Card Series at the No. 3-seeded Twins on Tuesday at Target Field in Minneapolis. The two teams didn’t meet in the 2020 regular season.

“I hope we can turn it on,” said Astros manager Dusty Baker, who’s taking his fifth franchise to the postseason. “We’ll see when we get there. These guys have certainly been there, and they know what’s at stake.”

Indeed, Houston's core players have played in 50 playoff games since 2015, as the Astros are making their fifth trip to the postseason in six years, including a club-record fourth in a row. Shortstop , who homered Sunday, said his team will try to draw from that experience.

“Regular-season games and playoff games bring a different intensity,” Correa said. “The experience that we’ve been able to acquire throughout the last couple of years of being able to get to the World Series and playing huge games like that, the intensity it feels like is going to be different when we start playing in a couple of days.”

The Twins, who went 24-7 at home, held off the White Sox and Indians to secure a second straight AL Central title. But their offense didn't carry the team as expected by many, with free-agent acquisition Josh Donaldson injured for a month and many other hitters regressing from their record-breaking 2019 numbers. Instead, Minnesota was defined by its pitching and defense for most of the season, led by Wild Card Series Game 1 starter Kenta Maeda, an offseason trade acquisition who anchored the third-most valuable pitching staff in the Majors, per FanGraphs.

“In the postseason, you’ve got to play good defense, get some good pitching and above all, get some timely hits,” Baker said. “Who gets the most two-out hits, and big hits, are those who win. We’re due a whole boatload of them. We haven’t gotten them lately.”

Coming off a season in which they won a club-record 107 games and were eight outs shy of winning their second World Series in three seasons, the Astros lost 2019 AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander after one start and had 2019 AL Rookie of the Year Award winner Yordan Alvarez for only two games. Numerous other injuries to the pitching staff meant Houston used 15 rookie hurlers, some of whom had never pitched above the Double-A level.

“We’ve got some young players who hopefully have gotten enough experience and gotten their feet wet,” Baker said. “They know not to be amazed by the situation or even amazed at the pressure. I think the pressure is a lot less without fans in the stands than it is with thousands of people screaming.”

Meanwhile, a Houston offense that set a Major League record for slugging percentage last year fell off significantly, with cornerstone players like Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Correa and Yuli Gurriel having subpar seasons. The emergence of outfielder Kyle Tucker as a bona fide run producer and the development of some of the young starters were positive developments.

But the Astros will be judged by what they do in the postseason.

“I think we’re going to step up, I think we’re going to play great baseball and I think we’re going to be fine,” Correa said.