MINNEAPOLIS – Tarnished by scandal at the start of the year and below average during this pandemic-abbreviated season, the Houston Astros showed up for the playoffs with their usual confidence and poise.
Just like that, they've got the edge on the Minnesota Twins in an elimination game.
Jose Altuve drew a walk to force in the go-ahead run in the ninth inning Tuesday after a two-out error by shortstop Jorge Polanco, and the Astros beat the Twins 4-1 to open their AL playoff series and stretch Minnesota's all-time postseason record to 17 straight losses.
“These guys know how to battle. They know what it’s like," said manager Dusty Baker, after the Astros became the first team in major league history to win a game after reaching the postseason with a losing record. “They know how to win, and they take pride in what they do.”
Game 2 in the best-of-three wild-card matchup is Wednesday at Target Field.
Michael Brantley tacked on a two-run single against Caleb Thielbar in the ninth after Sergio Romo issued the full-count walk to the 5-foot-6 Altuve, who batted 127 points lower (.219) this year than his 2017 AL MVP season.
“He laid off a close pitch. It didn’t go my way,” said Romo, who has three World Series rings with San Francisco and pitched in his 30th career postseason game. “Tough pill to swallow.”
Twins manager Rocco Baldelli called for Romo, the fifth of six pitchers, to start the ninth. The Astros started with two singles, but Romo was about to escape with the tie preserved until Polanco’s throw to second base after a straight-at-him grounder was low to blow the forceout.
“I’m the one to wear any of that. I do feel that I put my teammates in a position they shouldn’t have been in,” said Romo, lamenting the five shutout innings by starter Kenta Maeda that were spoiled.
Minnesota and Houston tied for the fewest errors in the majors with 20 during the 60-game season. The Astros were only 18th in walks, but this one counted the most.
“It’s the same thing as a base hit,” Altuve said.
Framber Valdez, who made 10 regular-season starts, pitched five scoreless innings in relief of Zack Greinke for the victory to keep the bullpen fresh for the rest of the series. Valdez allowed his only two hits with one out in the ninth, but Willians Astudillo grounded into a double play to end the game.
Valdez became the first reliever with five shutout innings in a playoff game since Romo's teammate, Madison Bumgarner, did so for the Giants in Game 7 of the 2014 World Series.
“Framber is oblivious to pressure,” said the 71-year-old Baker, who took his fifth different team to the postseason.
The Twins aren't, even though nobody on this team has taken part in more than five losses during this streak that surpassed the record for consecutive postseason losses in major North American sports. Minnesota was tied with the Chicago Blackhawks, who dropped 16 straight games in the NHL playoffs from 1975-79.
Minnesota’s previous win in the playoffs was notched in New York on Oct. 5, 2004, in Game 1 of the AL division series. That was also the last scoreless postseason start for a Twins pitcher — seven shutout innings by AL Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana — until Kenta Maeda’s in this game.
“We have to kind of wipe what we saw today in some regards. We have to show up tomorrow ready to play," Baldelli said, adding: “We have a lot of guys in the clubhouse, but I’d say the vast majority of them don’t know the Twins’ history at all.”
The Astros lost their previous postseason game: Game 7 of the World Series last year, at home against Washington. That was shortly before their sign-stealing plot was revealed, a scam that drew scorn all around baseball and called into question their past October accomplishments.
“We did a great job in the ninth of just putting pressure on them,” Brantley said. “We capitalized on a big opportunity.”
After defending their AL Central title and going 24-7 at Target Field for the best home record in baseball, the No. 3 seed Twins (36-24) were certainly well-positioned to finally taste some postseason success against the No. 6 seed Astros (29-31).
The outlook was good until the seventh, when reliever Tyler Duffey — a native of Houston and product of Rice University — allowed three consecutive two-out singles. The second one by Martín Maldonado was a sharp chopper that chewed up third baseman Marwin Gonzalez, one of the catalysts of the 2017 World Series title for the Astros. Then Josh Reddick tied the game with a clean hit to center.
The Twins — missing slugger Josh Donaldson for the series due to a nagging calf injury — had two hits over the first eight innings.
“I think we have to change gears and switch our minds ahead,” Maeda said through a translator after turning in his longest career appearance in the playoffs after being limited to the bullpen in the postseason by the Dodgers.
The military jet flyover during the national anthem and the crisp 58-degree temperature at first pitch were about the only signs of normality for this playoff game, with no tickets available due to the COVID-19 outbreak. There were, at least, about 200 team staff scattered throughout the second deck and roughly two dozen family members on hand to clap and cheer.
Greinke was pulled after four innings, put on a mask and took a seat in the front row behind Houston's dugout.
The Astros were waiting until after the game to announce their starter for Game 2, though Valdez's appearance took him out of the mix.
RHP José Berríos will take the mound for the Twins in Game 2. Both of his previous postseason appearances took place at Yankee Stadium, with nine hits and six runs allowed over seven innings.
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