This Astros-Twins matchup in the American League Wild Card Series comes as a bit of a surprise, because so many pieces needed to fall in place on Sunday for Minnesota to fall to the No. 3 seed.
It also comes as a surprise because the Twins will open a postseason against a team other than the Yankees, who they now cannot meet before the AL Championship Series, should both teams advance that far.
Perhaps that will help Minnesota snap a 16-game playoff losing streak, the last 10 of which have come against New York. But even though the 29-31 Astros have underperformed this season after coming within eight outs of winning the World Series last season -- and they are without ace Justin Verlander (Tommy John surgery) -- don’t expect a playoff-tested Houston team to go down quietly.
The Astros have played in the ALCS in each of the past three seasons, while the Twins haven’t made it that deep in the postseason since 2002, a year before manager Rocco Baldelli made his debut -- as a player. The best-of-three Wild Card Series at Target Field will go quickly -- Game 1 is this afternoon, Game 2 is Wednesday and a potential Game 3 would be Thursday -- heightening the importance of every pitch and plate appearance.
Here’s a look at what fans should watch for ahead of today's Game 1 in Minneapolis.
How have these teams fared against each other in the playoffs?
This is the first postseason meeting between the Astros and Twins.
When is the game and how can I watch it?
First pitch for Game 1 will be at 1 p.m. CT today at Target Field and will be televised on ABC.
Astros: Eight of the regulars in the starting lineup started at least one game for the Astros in the World Series last year, and George Springer (50 postseason games), Jose Altuve (50), Carlos Correa (50), Alex Bregman (44) and Yuli Gurriel (44) have tons of playoff experience. Kyle Tucker joined the lineup this year and led the club in RBIs (42).
1) George Springer, CF
2) Jose Altuve, 2B
3) Michael Brantley, DH
4) Alex Bregman, 3B
5) Kyle Tucker, LF
6) Yuli Gurriel, 1B
7) Carlos Correa, SS
8) Josh Reddick, RF
9) Martín Maldonado, C
Twins: Due to a rash of injuries throughout the lineup, the Twins haven’t fielded their full starting nine since July 30, a day before third baseman Josh Donaldson hit the injured list for a month with a strained right calf. Donaldson (right calf cramp) did not make the team's roster for the series while outfielder Byron Buxton (head contusion, mild concussion symptoms) is in the Game 1 starting lineup, batting second and in center field.
1) Luis Arraez, 2B
2) Byron Buxton, CF
3) Max Kepler, RF
4) Nelson Cruz, DH
5) Eddie Rosario, LF
6) Miguel Sanó, 1B
7) Jorge Polanco, SS
8) Mitch Garver, C
9) Marwin Gonzalez, 3B
Who are the starting pitchers?
Astros: With Verlander out for the season, veteran right-hander Zack Greinke will take the ball in Game 1. Greinke (3-3, 4.03 ERA) started the season strong (1.84 ERA in first five starts) before tailing off in the second half (5.73 ERA in final seven starts). He made five starts in the postseason last year and went 0-2 with a 4.68 ERA, but he shook off a tough start against the Rays in the AL Division Series and had a 2.95 ERA in his final four outings. He carried a shutout into the seventh inning of Game 7 of the World Series.
Twins: Don’t be surprised if right-hander Kenta Maeda (6-1, 2.70 ERA) has a good deal of extra motivation in his Game 1 start against the Astros. Not only will he be making his first playoff start since 2016, after the Dodgers shuttled him to the bullpen for the past three postseasons, but he was also part of their ‘17 team that lost to the Astros in the World Series. It’s not that Maeda needs extra motivation, as he finished the season as MLB’s qualified leader in WHIP (0.75) and held opponents to three or fewer earned runs in each of his 11 starts since arriving in an offseason trade.
How will the bullpens line up after the starter?
Astros: Because the Astros had so many injuries, manager Dusty Baker never settled into a bullpen routine, beyond former Twins reliever Ryan Pressly being his closer. Before that, it’s about matchups and feelings. Baker will rely on right-hander Enoli Paredes and lefty Brooks Raley in tough spots, and hard-throwing right-hander Josh James, too, if he’s healthy. The Astros are moving two starters to the bullpen for the series -- rookie right-hander Cristian Javier and either right-hander Jose Urquidy or left-hander Framber Valdez.
Twins: Minnesota’s relief corps has quietly been the biggest strength of the team throughout the season. Per FanGraphs, the Twins' bullpen ranked third in the Majors with 3.3 Wins Above Replacement this year. Expect some combination of surprise waiver-wire pickup Matt Wisler, Cody Stashak, Tyler Clippard and Trevor May to bridge the middle innings to the late-inning trio of Taylor Rogers, Sergio Romo and Tyler Duffey. Duffey is likely Baldelli’s choice for the highest-leverage situations, as Rogers and Romo have struggled of late. Caleb Thielbar and former Astros prospect Jorge Alcala should round out the bullpen depth.
Are there any relievers who are unavailable?
Any injuries of note?
Astros: James was placed on the injured list Friday for undisclosed reasons, but Baker said there was a chance he would be activated prior to this series. Maldonado was shaken up in a play at the plate as Friday's game ended, but he should be ready to go for the series.
Twins: Three of the Twins’ most significant players were sidelined with minor injuries at the end of the regular season, but the club is hopeful that all three will be ready to go by gametime. Right-hander Jake Odorizzi (right middle finger blister) is now healthy, by all accounts. Buxton’s light concussion symptoms improved on Sunday, Baldelli said, and Donaldson was said to be doing well before receiving treatment on Saturday.
Who is hot and who is not
Astros: Springer batted .316/.380/.653 with nine homers and 15 RBIs in September. … Brantley hit .316/.366/.395 with one homer and one RBI in the past 10 games. … Reddick is hitting .333/.379/.444 in his past eight games. … Bregman hit .179/.298/.410 with two homers and five RBIs in his final 11 games. … Correa hit .172/.222/.241 with one homer and three RBIs in the past 18 games.
Twins: Arraez returned from the 10-day IL (left knee tendinitis, left ankle sprain) on Saturday and went 6-for-8 with four doubles to finish the season. … Sanó carried the team for a stretch of August, but he is hitting .148/.179/.383 with 39 strikeouts in 81 at-bats in September. … It’s particularly important that the Twins get Buxton and Donaldson healthy, as Buxton had a 1.022 OPS in September with eight homers, while Donaldson posted a .925 OPS with five homers, two doubles and 14 walks since his Sept. 2 return from injury.
Anything else fans might want to know?
The Astros are in the playoffs for the fifth time in six years, including a franchise-record fourth in a row. … Houston finished with a losing record (29-31) for the first time since 2014. … Baker is taking his fifth franchise to the playoffs, but he hasn’t had a team advance since the ‘03 Cubs went to the National League Championship Series. … The Astros are 16-16 all-time in Minnesota, including 11-12 at Target Field. … The Astros are 28-22 in the playoffs as members of the AL (since 2013). … The Twins are 24-7 at Target Field in 2020, and they would have set the MLB record for highest home win percentage in a season with a win in Sunday’s season finale, a 5-3 loss to the Reds in 10 innings.
Do-Hyoung Park covers the Twins for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark and on Instagram at dohyoung.park.
Brian McTaggart has covered the Astros since 2004, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.