Astros sweep: 'We deserve a lot of respect'
An Astros team that struggled to make the playoffs, finished the season with a sub-.500 record and wasn’t given much of a chance to beat the Twins in the American League Wild Card Series has suddenly found its postseason swagger.
The No. 6-seed Astros pulled off a surprising sweep in the best-of-three series behind terrific pitching and a seventh-inning homer from Carlos Correa to eliminate the No. 3-seed Twins with a 3-1 win in Game 2 on Wednesday afternoon at Target Field. Minnesota hadn’t lost two games in a row at home this year before Houston came to town.
“I know a lot of people are mad, I know a lot of people don’t want to see us here, but what are they going to say now?” Correa said. “We’re a solid team, we play great baseball and we won a series on the road, in Minnesota, so what are they going to say now?”
Correa, of course, is snapping back at the critics who have lashed out at the Astros this year in the fallout of the sign-stealing scandal and questioned the validity of their 2017 World Series title. Houston entered the playoffs without much fanfare or outside expectations, but it is advancing yet again. The defending AL champions will open the best-of-five AL Division Series on Monday in Los Angeles against either the White Sox or the A’s.
“We had a tough year since the start of Spring Training, but now it’s all about playing great baseball,” Correa said. “I think we showed everybody we have a solid team. Minnesota, in a lot of brackets, was supposed to win the World Series. We swept a great team in Minnesota, and I think we deserve a lot of respect as a team. We played great baseball, our pitching staff did a great job, we got some clutch hits and we were able to win the series.”
Astros manager Dusty Baker, who snapped a 10-game losing streak in clinching situations for his first playoff series win since 2003, pieced together his pitching brilliantly. After getting five scoreless innings in relief from a starter, Framber Valdez, in a Game 1 win, he deployed another starter in relief, Cristian Javier, for three scoreless innings in Game 2 after Jose Urquidy held the Twins to one run in 4 1/3 innings. Former Twins reliever Ryan Pressly closed it out to spark another orange-clad celebration.
“I don’t think they had anything to prove,” Baker said. “They just had to play ball. We got good pitching, we played good defense, we got some timely hitting. We’re all happy about it. It’s Step 1 in a three-step process. We’ll enjoy this. This is what we wanted to do. We didn’t want to go into [Game 3], and now we’ve got a very strong and rested bullpen and [starter] Lance McCullers [Jr.]. This puts us in a good position, physically.”
Astros pitchers held the Twins to seven hits and two runs in 18 innings in the series -- Minnesota was 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position across the two games -- and Houston did just enough, offensively, to win. It scored three in the ninth in Game 1 to break a 1-1 tie, and Correa’s 430-foot homer in the seventh inning Wednesday put it ahead, 2-1. Kyle Tucker added two RBI singles. All but one inning pitched Wednesday by the Astros was by a rookie.
“You know, Strommy [pitching coach Brent Strom] came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you did an unbelievable job with these young guys,’” catcher Martín Maldonado said. “I told him, from the bottom of my heart, the reason that we’re here is because of them. We don’t have JV [Justin Verlander], we lost [Gerrit] Cole, we lost [Roberto] Osuna and those are the guys who are stepping up. Those guys stepped up big time. It was really good that they got their feet wet in this series.”
Just as Zack Greinke did in Game 1, Urquidy pitched out of a bases-loaded jam in the first inning in Game 2 and gave up his only run when Nelson Cruz doubled off reliever Brooks Raley in the fifth. That was only the second run Urquidy has allowed in 14 1/3 innings in the playoffs, including five scoreless in Game 4 of the 2019 World Series.
“I feel really happy,” Urquidy said. “I’m thankful for the manager giving me this opportunity. I think what I did last year in the postseason helps them to have more confidence in me, and I really appreciate that. I need to focus on doing the best job I can, and the No. 1 priority for me is staying healthy.”
The Astros were one of two teams, along with the Brewers, that entered this week as the second and third clubs in MLB history to make the postseason after finishing the regular season with a losing record, following the 1981 Royals. Now, by defeating the Twins, the Astros are the first big league club to win a playoff round after finishing under .500.
“We’re excited,” Maldonado said. “A lot of guys didn’t have us winning this series. We did what we had to do to win this series. We’re happy. We wanted it. This is a team that knows how to win in the playoffs, and we showed one more time what we are capable of.”