Defensive Misplays Plague Twins as Astros Take Game 1

Game 1 of the American League’s Nos. 3/6 seed matchup between the Minnesota Twins and Houston Astros was a microcosm of what may define this year’s Wild Card round, one in which a three-game series can be swung by chaos and randomness. Lady Luck had a hand in Houston’s 4-1 win in Minnesota, especially in a defining three-run Houston ninth.

All four of Houston’s runs came after a series of tough-luck hits and poor Twins defensive execution. After pitching a clean sixth inning and beginning the seventh with a pair of outs, Twins reliever Tyler Duffey gave up a shift-beating single to Josh Reddick and an infield single to Martín Maldonado, who hit a ball that was too hot for Marwin Gonzalez to handle at third base despite coming off the bat at just 79 mph. They were followed by a George Springer single off a first-pitch breaking ball to score Reddick, but Maldonado was thrown out by 30 feet while making an ill-advised attempt to advance to third. That tied the game at one.

The ninth inning was the death blow. Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel reached into the left-handed batter’s box to poke a Sergio Romo slider into the outfield for a flare single, and Carlos Correa followed with a bloop hit of his own. Romo retired the next two hitters, bringing Springer to the plate in yet another big spot. He hit a weak one-hop liner to the left of shortstop Jorge Polanco that seemed likely to end the inning, but Polanco’s throw the short way to second base was off the bag and second baseman Luis Arraez was unable to handle it while holding the base, allowing Springer to reach and load the bases. None of the Houston baserunners put a ball in play in excess of 81 mph.

All three runners would eventually score, first when Romo walked second baseman Jose Altuve to give Houston lead, then later when Michael Brantley waited back on the second sub-70-mph curveball thrown to him by lefty Caleb Thielbar (the first one surprised Brantley) and drove it into the gap for a two-run single.

But while Houston’s offense was fueled by a combination of good fortune and Minnesota mistakes, the defense presented little-to-no daylight for the Twins bats, led by an incredible relief performance by Framber Valdez, who was Houston’s best pitcher during the regular season.

Starter Zack Greinke had settled in after a long, 30-pitch first inning, but he was removed in favor of Valdez to start the fifth, preventing the top of the Twins lineup from seeing Greinke three times. Seven of Valdez’s first eight pitches were balls as he walked Gonzalez and Arraez to lead off the fifth, giving way to the heart of the Twins order. But not only did Valdez avert disaster in that inning, but he was utterly dominant after that, retiring the next thirteen Twins in a row until Miguel Sanó delivered an ultimately meaningless single in the ninth.

Valdez gave Minnesota the raspberry across five shutout innings in relief, winning the Astros Game 1 while simultaneously saving much of Houston’s bullpen for the rest of the series and setting himself up to pitch early in the Divisional Round should the Astros advance. He needed only 66 pitches to carry the Astros to the finish line and allowed just four baserunners along the way, relying heavily on his trademark curveball.

The Twins’ loss squandered a strong outing from starter Kenta Maeda, who threw five shutout innings before he was also removed so the Astros hitters could not face him a third time. He only ran into trouble in the fourth when walks to Alex Bregman and Correa sandwiched a single through the shift by Kyle Tucker, loading the bases. But Maeda wiggled out of trouble by, for the second time in the game, getting Reddick to swing through a breaking ball that caught an awful lot of the zone. Maeda’s final line: 91 pitches over five innings with two hits, three walks, and five strikeouts.

While this game turned on a Minnesota defensive miscue, it also had a lynchpin moment in the first inning when, with the bases loaded, Bregman charged and barehanded a slow, infield roller off the bat of Sano, with his throw barely beating the husky Sano to the bag. Sano also missed a piped 1-0 fastball earlier in the at-bat.

Quick Hits

It’s fair to expect the Astros to piggyback starters in tomorrow’s Game 2, with Cristian Javier likely to enter the game for multiple relief innings. Most of the Astros pitchers have experience both starting and relieving because all of them piggyback in the minors.

Byron Buxton has been hunting sliders all season but saw none of them today. He was tied with White Sox center fielder Luis Robert for the most home runs off of sliders during the regular season with seven.

All four of the catchers on Minnesota’s playoff roster saw action in Game 1. Top 100 prospect Ryan Jeffers started, Mitch Garver was given an at-bat against the lefty Valdez, Alex Avila entered as a defensive upgrade to Garver, then Willians Astudillo hit for Avila in the ninth.

While only three of their hits were put in play in excess of 92 mph, all of Houston’s hitters except Bregman had a knock in Game 1.





Eric Longenhagen is from Catasauqua, PA and currently lives in Tempe, AZ. He spent four years working for the Phillies Triple-A affiliate, two with Baseball Info Solutions and two contributing to prospect coverage at ESPN.com. Previous work can also be found at Sports On Earth, CrashburnAlley and Prospect Insider.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I did not expect to see their two best starters piggybacked in Game 1. I figured they would piggyback Javier and McCullers in Game 3, but I guess the Astros figured it was so close they wanted to play it differently?

Joe Joe
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Joe Joe

It looks like plan was Greinke 5, Valdez 4 from the start. Valdez said something to the effect that he got his warm up in gear a little earlier than he expected when he saw Greinke’s pitch count get up there. I was expecting Astro to tandem Greinke/Javier and Urquidy/Valdez. I expect Urquidy and Javier tomorrow with Astros hoping no Game 3.