It might not seem like it, but the Astros have qualified for the postseason for the fourth consecutive season and fifth time in six years. Yes, the only reason they are here is due to the expanded playoff format, but how they arrived doesn’t matter. They have been invited to the dance and anything can happen in October. Or late September, as is the case this year with the postseason starting a few days earlier than usual.
Houston’s opponent in the first-ever Wild Card round is the third-seeded Minnesota Twins, a formidable foe who does a little bit of everything to win baseball games. The Twins claimed their second AL Central division title in a row on Sunday despite a loss to the Reds, because the second-place White Sox also dropped their contest.
The last time the Astros and Twins saw each other on a baseball field? May 2, 2019, some 515 days ago. The Twins won that game 8-2 to finish a series in which they took three of four from Houston at Target Field. A combined seven players who appeared in that contest are no longer on their respective teams, showing a bit of perspective as to just how long it has been.
With all that being said, it is time to throw out the numbers as every team in this postseason field of 16 owns a 0-0 record. Let’s take a look at a position-by-position comparison for the Astros and Twins. Keep in mind the “edge” is opinion only.
Martin Maldonado has shown flashes of strong offensive production for the Astros this season, but they have been too few and far between. He ended the year hitting .215 with six homers and 24 in RBI in 47 games, and the last we saw of him he was limping off the field after a play at the plate to end Friday’s game in Arlington. First-year Astro Dustin Garneau was just 6-for-38 in 17 contests this year and does not have experience in the postseason at the major league level, so expect to see Maldonado receive all of the playing time if healthy. Skipper Dusty Baker said he thinks Maldonado will be good to go. He was better defensively than Garneau, throwing out six of 19 attempted base stealers.
On the Twins side of the equation, Mitch Garver had a disappointing year coming off a 31-homer campaign in 2019. He was limited to 23 games due to injury and hit .167 with a .247 OBP. But they have other options, such as Ryan Jeffers. The rookie was promoted in mid-August and came on strong, hitting .273 with three long balls in 26 contests. Alex Avila had a batting average of just .184 but has previous postseason experience with the Detroit Tigers and his veteran presence behind the plate could come in handy if called upon. Garver showed off the best arm of the three as he cut down a third of the runners who tried to take a base on him.
Edge: Twins. You never know what you will get when a player such as Maldonado returns quickly from an injury, and Minnesota has the luxury of inserting the rookie Jeffers to provide power from the catcher’s spot in the order.
In this strange season, Yuli Gurriel never really got into a groove for Houston, recording a slash line of .234/.274/.384. But he always seems to turn it on in the postseason, as he has 12 doubles and five long balls across the last three playoff runs from the Astros. Gurriel is still a threat to leave the ballpark any time he steps into the box, but can he be more patient against the Twins this week? Gurriel only drew 12 walks in the regular season.
Much like Gurriel, Minnesota’s Miguel Sano represents a massive power bat in the middle of the order. Despite a .204 batting average this year, Sano still picked up 12 doubles and 13 homers. He can hit the ball a long way when he makes contact, “when” being the key word. Sano led all of baseball with 90 strikeouts this year and breaking balls are considered his kryptonite, so pitching him low and away seems like the way to go.
Edge: Astros. Going with experience here, which Gurriel has a great deal of at this time of year. Sano might be overmatched as he was against the Yankees in the first round of last postseason, when he was 1-for-12 with eight punchouts.
There is no way to sugarcoat this: 2020 was the worst regular season of Jose Altuve’s career. The sparkplug who batted over .300 for five consecutive years limped to a .219/.286/.344 mark in 48 contests in this truncated campaign. Sure, Altuve could have picked up the pace if it was a normal season, but it wasn’t, so we will leave that debate for 2021 if he falters again. His longest hitting streak this year? Four games. That’s right, quatro. It seems hard to believe for him, but his average was under .200 from the end of the first week of the season through August 21. Altuve’s high-water mark reached just .225, but he did deliver one of his best single-game performances of the year in the final series. He was 3-for-5 with a double and a home run last Thursday in Arlington, providing maybe a wee bit of optimism heading into Target Field.
Ever since being called up by the Twins last May, all Luis Arraez has done is hit. His .334 success in 2019 saw him get Rookie of the Year votes, and although he was hampered by a knee injury this year, he still batted .321 in 31 games. Arraez’s bat control is remarkable as he made contact 89.9 percent of the time while striking out just 11 times. He does not compile a lot of extra-base hits (just nine doubles this year), but his scrappy style of play could drive the Astros crazy by the end of Game 1. Oddly enough, Houston has yet to see Arraez due to the teams completing all of their 2019 matchups by the beginning of May and then teams sticking to “regional play” to cut down on travel this season.
Edge: Twins. Instead of leaning on Altuve’s terrific postseason resume, the focus is more on how he has simply not put it together this year. Arraez is a hitting machine and it is safe to think that carries on into the playoffs.
Many of the Astros regulars dropped off in terms of production this year, but not Carlos Correa. He was an Iron Man, playing in 58 of 60 games and slashing .264/.326/.383. He picked up nine doubles and five home runs, which would translate very near his career numbers in a full season. Correa was also as steady as it gets in the field, committing only one error in 212 chances. He made a plethora of dazzling plays and also converted multiple great relay throws to cut down a runner trying to score.
Jorge Polanco entered this year coming off an All-Star campaign in which he ripped 40 doubles and 22 long balls, but struggled to get the bat going this year. He collected just 12 extra-base hits while drawing 13 walks, meaning his on-base percentage was barely a tick above .300.
Edge: Astros. Before the world turned upside down, remember the iconic images of Correa going wild after home runs in the World Series? He is still an excellent player, has a flair for the dramatic and could very well have more up his sleeve.
Alex Bregman was on a roll in August, batting .313 in 17 contests before straining his right hamstring in Coors Field and having to miss three weeks of action. It was a tough September for Bregman after returning as his average was just .197, but much like Altuve, had a strong performance at Globe Life Field last Thursday that could propel him to success against the Twins. Bregman was a single shy of the cycle that night and went deep again in the next game, marking his first two home runs of the month. He has ten long balls in 44 career postseason games so he could be heating up at a perfect time.
The Twins brought in former AL MVP Josh Donaldson on a four-year deal last offseason, and he has yet to live up to expectations. Donaldson has all of 18 hits in a Minnesota uniform and also missed significant time due to an ailment, his a right calf problem that has plagued him for years. He re-aggravated the injury over the weekend and did not play in the final two contests of the regular season. If Donaldson is unable to go, the hot corner duties will likely fall in the lap of former Astros postseason star Marwin Gonzalez, who hit .211 with five homers in 53 games for Minnesota this year.
Edge: Astros. Although Bregman hasn’t delivered with the bat since returning from injury, health seems to be on his side while it is up in the air if Donaldson’s calf will cooperate. Bregman has shown an ability to come through in the most pressure-packed moments of the postseason and a pair of balls leaving the yard over the weekend could go a long way in terms of boosting his confidence
Man, what a season for Kyle Tucker. Early on, there were questions about if he would ever live up to the hype from when he was a top prospect in the Astros system, and he seems to have answered the bell. Tucker was hitting just .193 after play on Aug. 18, but a four-hit night at Coors Field started a stretch in which he has helped carry the load of the offense. In the final 36 games of the season, Tucker homered seven times and drove in 31 runs, raising his end-of-season average to .268. He was relatively overmatched when he appeared in the playoffs last year, but a steady month and half should mean he is ready to rock and roll come noon Central time on Tuesday.
Eddie Rosario had a productive year for the Twins, bashing 13 long balls in 57 games. He also did the job in terms of putting the ball in play, whiffing just 34 times all season. Rosario has hit well in both of his trips to the postseason, homering in the 2017 Wild Card game and again last year as part of a 4-for-13 effort against the Yankees.
Edge: Even. As mentioned above, Tucker has been locked in for a while now, but Rosario also provides dangerous power and is a tough out. We will just have to see what happens on this one. That’s why they play the game…
Much like Tucker, George Springer shook off the doldrums and got into a groove where he was red-hot. Springer was hitting .194 after the game on Sept. 2, but that might as well be years ago. He finished the month of September with a .316/.380/.653 slash line, including a whopping nine home runs since Sept. 5, when he hit two in the second game of a doubleheader in Anaheim. Springer had quite a day in the Astros regular-season home finale, racing around the bases on an inside-the-park home run in the sixth inning...and then smoking one over the wall in the next frame.
In this injury-riddled 2020 across all sports, there has been no exception for the Twins, especially Byron Buxton. He first missed time with left shoulder inflammation and was then hit on the helmet with a 91 mile an hour fastball from Reds hurler Lucas Sims on Friday. Luckily, Buxton is expected to be good to go when the series begins Tuesday afternoon. He equaled Rosario’s production with 13 home runs of his own in the regular season.
Edge: Astros. Again, it is not a given players will feel 100 percent comfortable when stepping into the batter’s box for the first time following an injury, especially taking a fastball near the noggin. Even if it only takes Buxton two or three at-bats to get back in the swing of things, that could make all the difference in a best-of-three series. Especially if Springer is able to do some early damage out of the gate. Knowing what he does this time of year, it is very possible.
In his time in an Astros uniform, Josh Reddick has performed better in odd-numbered years as opposed to even-numbered years and that held true this year. He dipped from a .275 average last season to .245 in 2020 with four blasts and 23 RBI. This will be the eighth trip for Reddick to the postseason, previously having been from 2012-14 with Oakland and 2016 in his brief stint with the Dodgers.
Max Kepler hit the first pitch of the season for the Twins over the fence for a home run and then hit another long ball in his second at-bat, but it has been a steady decline ever since. He finished with a .228/.321/.439 slash line, a disappointment following his 36-homer season one year ago.
Edge: Even. It’s hard to tell what we are going to get here. Both Reddick and Kepler have not hit the way they are capable of, but each have experience on the postseason stage and each of them could very well tune up their game for when it matters most.
Michael Brantley continues to look like a genius signing for Houston, leading the team with a .300 batting average with an on-base percentage of .364 and slugging percentage of .476. He missed some time in August with right quad discomfort but seems to be well past it, racking up a trio of three-hit games in September. Brantley was solid last postseason, hitting .286 over the course of 18 contests. It is possible he might see some left field, with Tucker moving to the designated hitter spot if that is the case. Brantley played in 19 games in left this year and recorded a perfect fielding percentage.
Nelson Cruz is still doing it at age 40, and once again is extremely valuable to his team. He belted 16 home runs to go along with a .303 average in 53 contests. Not easy to do when you have been playing professionally for two decades, but he keeps on keeping on. Cruz has a whooping 17 long balls in 44 career playoff games and there is no doubt he will be looking for more.
Slight edge: Twins. Wherever he has gone in his career, Cruz has caused pain in his opponent’s hearts, and the Astros will need to pitch him carefully. Brantley is an asset as well, especially with his ability to flip-flop between the designated hitter and left field spots.
It has been a rough season for the Astros rotation ever since last December, when Gerrit Cole opted to head to the Bronx. Then this year finally got underway and Justin Verlander was immediately on the shelf, followed by Lance McCullers Jr. being out of action for a while. But McCullers has righted the ship, not allowing an earned run in 17.2 innings across three starts since returning and is pegged for a possible Game 3 on Thursday. Staff ace Zack Greinke (3-3, 4.03 ERA) has been up and down throughout his career in the playoffs. He will get the ball in Game 1, followed by either Jose Urquidy (1-1, 2.73) or pleasant surprise Framber Valdez (5-3, 3.57) in the second game of the series.
Kenta Maeda has been one of the best pitchers in baseball in his first year in a Twins uniform, finishing with six wins and a tidy 2.70 ERA in 11 starts, including a near no-hitter. He is the obvious choice for Rocco Baldelli to get the ball in Tuesday’s opener and will be followed by Opening Day starter Jose Berrios (5-4, 4.00) and Michael Pineda, who was 2-0 with a 3.38 ERA after returning from suspension on Sept. 1.
Edge: Twins. Pitching as a whole has been iffy for the Astros this year, and not knowing what version of Greinke you will get is concerning. If Maeda continues to deal and gets the job done in the opener, it will be a tough proposition for Houston going up against the accomplished Berrios and Pineda as they try to advance.
Can we skip this part for the Astros? No, really. With Roberto Osuna, Brad Peacock, Chris Devenski all on the shelf, Dusty Baker has had to rely on rookies throughout the course of the year and the results simply haven’t been pretty. Relievers such as Humberto Castellanos and Nivaldo Rodriguez had not pitched above High-A before this season, while Brooks Raley’s last appearance in the major leagues was 2013 before he helped fill the staff this year. Ryan Pressly has been effective at times as he has 12 saves, but his ERA is a bit unsettling at 3.43.
The Twins bullpen has been solid, led by Tyler Clippard and Tyler Duffey. They each recorded an ERA of under 2.80 while making 20 appearances or more. Another strong arm is Trevor May, who has struck out 38 batters in 23.1 frames while walking just seven.
The fact of the matter is, it is postseason time, and it will be fascinating to see what happens in this year like no other. We should all be happy that there is postseason baseball being played.
Edge: Twins, big time. They are second in MLB in fWAR at 3.5. Astros 16th at 1.1. (Pretty amazing that they’re that good considering they’re almost all rookies.) The Twins are 6th in ERA, Astros 15th.
If pitching patterns hold this should be the Twins’ series to lose. Plus, the games are being played in Minnesota, where the Twins have a massive advantage, whereas the Astros have a terrible road record.
But the Astros have a track record of clutch playoff play, and, its a three game series. Anything can happen. Let the games begin.