Top prospect Brown rises to occasion in series finale

April 9th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- The role of a stopper, the starting pitcher who takes the ball and halts a losing streak, is not usually one you’d expect a 24-year-old rookie to fill. The Astros, facing a possible road sweep at the hands of the Twins on Sunday afternoon, certainly needed to find a way to be just that.

Brown, the team’s top prospect (No. 39 overall by MLB Pipeline), delivered with his best start as a big leaguer by holding the Twins to one unearned run in seven innings while getting four two-out RBIs from center fielder to lead the Astros to a 5-1 win at Target Field.

“That was an important getaway [win] to prevent the sweep,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “Hunter was great. We got some timely hitting from some guys.”

Brown threw 97 pitches, mixing his power fastball and hard slider almost evenly while trying to find the feel for his curveball. He didn’t allow a hit after the fourth inning, sending down 10 of the final 11 batters he faced. That allowed Baker to use only two relief pitchers -- and -- after using a combined nine relievers in losses in the first two games of the series.

“I think as a starter, that’s what you want to do every time,” Brown said. “And especially heading into the next series, we’re going to need everybody ready to go and try to keep the momentum rolling. It feels good to go out there and pitch deep into the game.”

The Astros tied a season high by banging out 11 hits, with each starter reaching base safely at least once. McCormick, thrust into the leadoff role Saturday (replacing Jeremy Peña), slugged a two-out, two-run homer in the third inning off Twins starter Tyler Mahle. He added a two-out, two-run single in the fifth for a 4-1 lead.

“They were big,” McCormick said. “I just had to get on top of the ball. … All day I felt like I was getting pitches up in the zone and I made adjustments. I’m happy to get some two-out knocks. I thought Mauricio Dubón [2-for-4, two runs] set me up perfectly today. He did a great job.”

Brown allowed only two hits, both of which came in the fourth. That included a two-out double that allowed Byron Buxton to score an unearned run. Minnesota manager Rocco Baldelli said the Twins needed to be more patient against Brown and make him throw more strikes.

“He’s got kind of a unique repertoire that he uses,” Baldelli said. “He’s got an arm stroke that kind of lets him get really over the top and gets that cut on the ball and lets him throw that slider at a good, hard velocity.

"That’s not really a combination of pitches that you see too, too often. The four-seamer -- that’s 96, 98. The cutter -- that's low to mid-90s. And then a slider that’s a little bit below that. It allows him to pitch against both right-handers and left-handers effectively because you can run those pitches in on lefties, and those pitches work fine against righties too, and he’s got a downer breaking ball. He has a lot to offer.”

The performance by Brown should do wonders for his confidence, though he’s not exactly been lacking any of that. Brown is in the rotation to start the season following the injury to Lance McCullers Jr. and it’s an opportunity he appears more than ready to seize.

“I think if he’s leaving his cutter a little bit more over the plate, it’s a little more hittable,” Twins catcher Ryan Jeffers said. “But he did such a good job, getting it to where it needed to be and then using the curveball when he needed to use the curveball and keeping that in the right spot.”

Brown got 14 swings and misses, including seven on his slider, which averaged 92.1 mph. He got a first-inning double play with the slider, as well as three of his seven strikeouts on the pitch.

“You can’t just sit on his fastball,” Baker said. “You try to eliminate pitches as a hitter. If a guy’s not getting one over, then you start sitting on the others. That's why I caught Yainer [Diaz] with him today because he has more experience with anybody that’s here. He called a good game, too. He had a great game offensively. The young boys came through today.”