HOUSTON -- Once he was given some rare run support at Minute Maid Park, right-hander Justin Verlander wasn't about to let it go to waste.
Verlander delivered with his longest start in more than a month, throwing seven innings while allowing three hits and one run to lead the Astros to their fourth consecutive win -- and 11th in 14 games -- with a 5-2 victory over the Twins on Tuesday night.
"I think the boys coming out and scoring four early, that always makes our job a little bit easier," Verlander said. "You can attack the zone a little bit more, try to force contact early in counts and keep your pitch count in check, and not worry about giving up one or two runs. A lot of respect for the guys today grinding early and scoring some runs, and I took care of the rest."
The Astros now hold a 3 1/2-game lead over the A's, who dropped a 5-1 decision to the Yankees on Tuesday night, for first place in the American League West.
Verlander (14-9), who had as many as four runs of support in only two of his previous 16 home starts this year, saw the Astros erupt for four runs in the first inning against Twins starter Trevor May -- a reliever who threw the first inning before Kohl Stewart followed with five scoreless innings.
"Our game plan was really just get a good pitch to hit," manager AJ Hinch said. "We know going in when they start a guy like that, you're not going to see him twice. You've got to go up ready to hit. There's no sort of feel-out for the next at-bat or set him up for the next at-bat. As more and more teams in the league start a reliever, you're going to see guys ambush different pitches."
Hinch and Verlander were pleased with the pitcher's slider, which was the best it's been in a few starts. He threw 23 sliders, 26 curveballs and even mixed in three changeups.
"We know he always has the good fastball -- he's got a lot of history against them -- they do take quite a bit and he threw quite a few strikes at the right time to get them into counts he could exploit," Hinch said.
George Springer (2-for-4) ambushed the first pitch of the game, a slider, for a single. Jose Altuve, who's in an 0-for-17 slump, was robbed of extra bases with a liner to left before the first of three Alex Bregman doubles got the Astros going.
"He's in a really good place mentally and physically right now," Hinch said of Bregman. "I see him having a game plan every single at-bat. We talk in the dugout about some things he was doing. He missed a pitch early and he was going to make sure he stayed on a pitch to the right side of the field if he got it again, and he got it again and hits the ball down the right-field line. Part of it is game plan, part of it is swing path. It really does allow him to spray the ball around a little bit."
Five of the first seven Astros hitters reached to start the game, with Bregman hitting an RBI double and Tyler White adding an RBI single. Yuli Gurriel capped the inning with a two-run homer, pushing the lead to 4-0.
The red-hot Bregman went 3-for-4, taking the Major League lead with 46 doubles this season to go along with a team-leading 91 RBIs. He extended his on-base streak to 32 games, during which he's hitting .352 with a .437 on-base percentage.
I'm just up there trying to get a good pitch to hit," Bregman said. "I'm trying to swing at stuff over the middle of the plate and take balls, swing at strikes. Just having the guys around me in our lineup allows me to relax and try and put together a good at-bat."
MOMENT THAT MATTERED
Thomas Pressly, facing his former team for the first time, struck out all three batters he faced in the eighth inning, including his former catcher Chris Gimenez. Pressly has 11 consecutive scoreless appearances -- the second-longest stretch of his career -- and he has struck out 22 with no walks allowed in 15 2/3 innings with the Astros.
"It's not as weird as you think it would be because I faced a lot of those during batting practice in Spring Training," Pressly said. "In an actual game it was almost like batting practice. I was trying not to throw anything down the middle. It was fun facing them. It was great."
Verlander struck out eight batters, giving him 248 for the season. That's the fifth-most in a single season in franchise history. Only Nolan Ryan (1982, '87), J.R. Richard (1978-79) and Mike Scott (1986) have struck out more batters in one year for the Astros.
HE SAID IT
"He's locked in, and when that happens, he leaves very little margin for the pitcher to get him out, and we're seeing that come pretty regularly for him.'' -- Hinch, on Bregman
Rookie left-hander Framber Valdez (2-1, 1.26 ERA) will start for the Astros at 7:10 p.m. CT on Wednesday in the series finale against the Twins at Minute Maid Park. Valdez will be appearing in his fourth Major League game and making his third start. Right-hander Jake Odorizzi (5-9, 4.41 ERA) starts for Minnesota.