MINNEAPOLIS -- The Astros were able to exhale when a dominant Justin Verlander recorded three outs in succession in the sixth inning Monday night to strand runners on the corners. They exhaled when Chris Devenski needed one pitch to get an inning-ending double play with the bases loaded in the eighth.
And they exhaled again when Byron Buxton's rocket in the bottom of the ninth curled in front of the foul pole instead of going for a game-tying, two-run homer. But it wasn't until Buxton grounded out to end the Astros' 2-0 win over the Twins at frigid Target Field moments later that they were truly able to draw an easy breath.
"We knew we were going to have to score one run to try to scratch and claw and get the lead, and those leads feel really big in elements like tonight [35 degrees at first pitch]," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "Definitely a different game when it's played in these elements. We thought it would be low scoring, but we didn't know how difficult it would be to finish the game."
Verlander (2-0) continued his dominance by throwing seven scoreless innings, striking out nine batters and allowing four hits, while three relievers preserved the Astros' second shutout in three games. The Astros (9-2) have tied the 1972 club for best start after 11 games.
"He dials it up with the best in the game," Hinch said of Verlander. "I don't know too many guys that are better in those situations. There are a lot of great pitchers around the league, but when he can feel it and he smells he needs to turn his game up, he really reaches deep and does some incredible things."
Verlander, who lowered his regular-season ERA with the Astros to 1.20, generated 13 swinging strikes, including eight with his fastball. He was backed by an RBI single from J.D. Davis in the sixth and an RBI double from Marwin Gonzalez in the eighth.
"We don't need to score a ton of runs to win every single day," Verlander said. "Honestly, one through five, the starting pitcher has a chance to do something great and limit the other team. Our offense knows that and it keeps them in the game, too."
Minnesota starter Lance Lynn went toe-to-toe with Verlander and delivered a strong start of his own to rebound from a shaky start to the season. Lynn struck out nine and held the Astros to three hits over five scoreless innings.
"We talked about Justin, just his ability to have another gear when things get more with traffic on the bases," Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "We had our chances there with the first and third and nobody out and he got a couple punchouts and a popup."
The Twins attempted to spark a rally in the eighth, when they loaded the bases with one out. But Devenski came on to face Eddie Rosario and needed one pitch to force the Minnesota left fielder to ground into a 6-3 double play to end the threat. In the ninth, Buxton nearly tied the game with a two-run homer off Ken Giles, who was brought in with two outs, only to see it go just foul down the left-field line. Buxton grounded out to end the game.
"Kenny needed that," Hinch said. "We wanted a confidence builder for him and getting that last out was going to be huge for him if he could do it. He was very fortunate the ball was only a couple of feet foul. For a moment there, we all were uncertain how that nice play is going to end."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Verlander escapes jam:Jason Castro led off the sixth inning with a stand-up double, and James Dozier followed with an infield single to get the Twins in scoring position. But Verlander answered by striking out Joe Mauer and Miguel Sano in succession -- with his fastest pitch of the night, a 96.4-mph fastball, coming on the third strike to Sano. Verlander then forced Rosario to pop up to end the inning.
"[Mauer] is such a tough guy to strike out," Verlander said. "I really didn't think about striking him out. I honestly got lucky yanking a heater down and in and him swinging over it. That doesn't happen too often. Really, it's like, 'OK, make your pitches, get an infield popup, get a ground ball to the corners or whatever.' He's not really a guy you're zeroing in and saying, 'OK, I can strike him out very easily.' … Pretty fortunate he expanded there."
Davis delivers in sixth: With Lynn out of the game to start the sixth inning, Houston went to work right away against the Minnesota bullpen. Carlos Correa led off the inning with a double to left off of Taylor Rogers and later scored when Davis lined a single to left that turned into extra bases when the ball skipped past Rosario to the warning track. The RBI was Davis' first of the season.
"It's kind of hard when you hit .400 in all of Spring Training to earn a spot and then you come in here and can't really hit a baseball," Davis said. "It's difficult. Nothing wrong physically or fundamentally. … It's mental and going through some growing pains, but I'm glad in a tight situation I came through for the team and got on the board for Justin."
"We willed it foul." Hinch, on Buxton's long fly ball to left in the ninth that just missed being a homer
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Astros starters have a 1.64 ERA this season, the lowest in the Majors.
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
In the bottom of the eighth inning, Mauer was ruled out on a force when Alex Bregman threw to Jose Altuve at second base. After a review, the umpires overturned the call and ruled that Mauer beat the throw to the bag and was safe to load the bases with one out. Rosario then grounded into a double play.