Astros have healthy respect for Twins: 'They look legit'

October 7th, 2023

HOUSTON -- The Minnesota Twins are about so much more than Carlos Correa, the former Astros star shortstop who had more than a few indelible postseason moments during his time in a Houston uniform. The Twins can pitch with anyone, they have power up and down the lineup and they feature one of the hardest-throwing closers in the game. The Astros know the challenge that awaits in the American League Division Series.

Astros manager Dusty Baker watched the Twins’ sweep over the Blue Jays in the AL Wild Card Series, and he said his club will have its hands full against the AL Central champs. Three wins over the Twins in the next five games would send the Astros to their seventh consecutive AL Championship Series -- a remarkable run of success that culminated with World Series titles in 2017 and '22.

“Nobody gave them a chance to beat Toronto, I don’t think,” Baker said Thursday. “They’ve got good pitching, they’ve got good defense, they’ve got a number of left-handed hitters, which poses a problem. They’ve got a good manager. I mean, they’re a good team.”

Not that the Astros needed to be reminded of that, considering the Twins took four of six meetings from Houston in the regular season. The clubs haven’t met, though, since May 31, and Minnesota has yet to face Justin Verlander, Framber Valdez or Cristian Javier -- likely the Astros’ top three starters -- this year.

“They didn’t really see the real Astros,” said Houston general manager Dana Brown, before adding: “They look legit in the postseason -- the starters and relievers were really good, they’ve got some firepower, the young kid, Royce Lewis, is really good. Game 1 is a big game. I think you get Game 1, you’re in the driver’s seat.”

The Astros are 20-8 all-time in the ALDS, including 7-0 in openers. All but two of those Game 1s were at home, with Houston winning Game 1 in Kansas City in 2015 and beating the A’s in '20 in a game played at Dodger Stadium because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Houston will try to recapture that home-field advantage after going 39-42 -- the first team to have a losing home record and win its division since the '01 Braves. The Astros are 11-0 in ALDS games at Minute Maid Park since '17.

“It’s time to redeem ourselves,” Astros outfielder Chas McCormick said. “We haven’t played that well at the end of the day, but we always love playing here. It’s a good time to win some games here, gain some momentum, gain an advantage somewhere. ... We definitely need to show up, because the Twins are going to come here and play their butts off. We need to be focused and 100 percent prepared.”

With five days off since the end of the regular season, the Astros were able to line up their pitching. Verlander will start Game 1 on Saturday, and lefty Valdez will start Sunday. Javier is the likely Game 3 starter, though it’s not official. Houston’s ability to limit damage against the Twins’ left-handed hitters -- including Max Kepler, Edouard Julien, Matt Wallner and Willi Castro -- will be a key plot in the series, especially since Valdez might be the only southpaw on Houston’s roster.

Twins pitchers led the Major Leagues in strikeouts with 1,560, topped by Pablo López with 234. He has faced the Astros only once in his career and is Minnesota’s likely Game 2 starter after pitching in Tuesday's opener of the Wild Card Series. Sonny Gray, who started Wednesday's Wild Card clincher, likely starts Game 3 against Houston, which puts the onus on the Astros to win Game 1 and have the upper hand before Minnesota’s best two pitchers get the ball. Houston hitters had the third-fewest strikeouts in the Major Leagues.

“We’re a good-hitting team, and we’ve got to make sure that when we get pitches to hit early on, we need to be aggressive and put the ball in play and put a lot of pressure on their defense,” McCormick said.

Saturday will be the Astros’ 93rd playoff game since the start of the 2015 season (the Twins have played in eight in that span). Houston will be leaning on that experience, the arm of Verlander and a rabid home crowd to begin its march toward a possible third World Series title in seven seasons.

“In the postseason, it comes down to execution in all phases of the game,” third baseman Alex Bregman said. “That team that executes the best always wins. Hopefully, we’re ready to execute.”