HOUSTON -- Through two innings Wednesday night, Astros starter Hunter Brown looked about as dominant as he’s been all season.
Brown sent down the first six Twins batters he faced, including five by strikeout, and appeared to be in the early stages of a possible gem. He had already tossed a gem against Minnesota earlier this season when he didn't allow an earned run in seven innings on April 9 at Target Field.
On Wednesday evening, Brown began the third inning by striking out Max Kepler -- or so he thought. And he wasn’t alone. Even Kepler walked back to the dugout after he had, apparently, swung and missed at a 2-2 curveball. However, plate umpire Adam Hamari said Kepler got a piece of the ball and ruled it a foul tip. Kepler returned to the box and lined the next pitch into left field for a single to open the floodgates.
“You go from thinking you struck somebody out and then I hung him a curveball and he put a good swing on it,” Brown said. “That kind of started the trouble for me. I guess it’s frustrating when you think you’ve got him, then you don’t.”
The first three batters to face Brown in the third inning wound up scoring, including a two-run single by Donovan Solano, as the Twins tagged the rookie right-hander for five runs in 4 2/3 innings for an 8-2 win over the Astros to take the three-game series at Minute Maid Park.
“That started the rally,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said of the Kepler at-bat. “I didn’t see the play. I don’t know if he fouled it or not. [Catcher Martín] Maldonado didn’t say much about it, but evidently, he must have fouled it off.”
Brown threw a career-high 102 pitches against a pesky Twins lineup that fouled off 28 pitches. Baker said a 12-pitch at-bat to Twins outfielder Alex Kirilloff in the first inning -- Brown struck him out looking to end the inning -- took a lot out of his starting pitcher.
“That takes a whole inning out of you,” Baker said. “It was a very good at-bat by him. One of the keys was the walk to Michael Taylor [in the third]. We walked him a couple of times to start some rallies.
"After that, they flared a couple of balls and I had to go get him because his pitch count got real high. We’ve got to take care of this guy. Then we couldn’t close the floodgates.”
After Brown was forced to throw 36 pitches in the third inning, he wasn’t able to rest very long. Twins starter Louie Varland needed only seven pitches to retire the bottom three hitters in Houston’s order in the bottom of the inning. Varland threw seven scoreless innings, allowing four singles.
"[Varland] made life difficult on their side of the field because their guy kept having to run out there immediately,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "I think those really quick turnarounds took something out of [Brown] a little bit. A little bit out of the strike-throwing. The stuff might've been the same on the [velocity] board, but I think he had to work really hard."
Brown gave up six hits -- all singles -- and walked two batters while striking out eight hitters. He left the game with runners at first and second base and two outs in the fifth, and Ryan Jeffers brought them both home on a double off reliever Parker Mushinski. Those runs were charged to Brown, raising his ERA to 3.61 after 11 starts.
“I just didn’t execute pitches when I needed to at probably the most important times of the night,” Brown said. “I kind of left the ball over the middle and I didn’t give myself or us the best chance to get out of that one."
Of the 12 balls put in play by the Twins against Brown, only four left the bat at higher than 91 mph, and only two were hit harder than 100 mph -- both by Solano. His two-run single in the third had a 101.5 mph exit velocity and his first-inning groundout was 102.3 mph. The average exit velocity against Brown was 85.1 mph.
“I felt good about my stuff,” Brown said. “It doesn’t really mean anything because when I needed to make pitches, I didn’t.”
Jake Meyers and Yainer Diaz hit back-to-back homers for the Astros in the eighth, but they didn’t have a runner reach third base otherwise.