Phil Hughes struck out George Springer with fastballs in the first inning Friday. A good sign? Nope. It should have been a warning sign on this particular night.
The fastball that has missed bats and helped Hughes take off in his first season with the Twins was not as elusive as it has been. And it put Hughes and the Twins in a big enough hole that their late rally fell just short in a 5-4 loss to the Astros.
Hughes gave up all five Astros runs and fell to 7-2 on the season. That included solo home runs to Marwin Gonzalez and Matt Dominguez, and a two-run shot to George Springer that shouldn’t have been hit the way he hit it.
After talking with pitching coach Rick Anderson following his start, Hughes said he should have seen the signs.
“I didn’t have my best fastball,” he said. “Just wasn’t making adjustments the way I have before. I did recognize it early enough to make some better pitches with the two-seamer and cutter.”
Still, the Twins almost got Hughes off the hook.
After being shut out by lefthander Dallas Keuchel for six innings, the Twins slowly came to life against the Astros bullpen.
They scored three runs in the seventh, two on Danny Santana’s two-run homer, the first home run of his career. Kurt Suzuki and Eduardo Escobar hit back-to-back doubles in the eighth, pulling the Twins within 5-4. The inning could have been bigger, but center fielder Dexter Fowler robbed leadoff hitter Trevor Plouffe of extra bases with a splendid diving catch.
“We hit some balls pretty good and they kept making plays, and that was the difference in the ballgame,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of the Astros defense.
Chad Qualls come on in the ninth for the save, getting Josh Willingham to fly out with Joe Mauer on second to end the game.
The game was delayed 81 minutes because of thunderstorms approaching Target Field. Gardenhire said he didn’t want to risk an in-game delay that could possibly lead to Hughes being removed from the game. But the storms never came. The game started — after the rainless rain delay — at around 8:30 p.m.
Hughes pitched two scoreless innings before Gonzalez hit a 1-1 pitch over the right field wall. Hughes had gone five starts without giving up a home run before that at-bat.
Dominguez took his turn in the fourth, hitting a pitch up and out of the strike zone out to center field, just out of the reach of a leaping Aaron Hicks, for a 2-0 Astros lead.
Things looked bleak for the Hughes in the sixth. Fowler lead off with a triple to the right-field corner, with Fowler taking the extra base when Jason Kubel failed to pick the ball up cleanly. Then MLB hits leader Jose Altuve singled to right to make it 3-0.
That brought up Springer, the ultra-talented phenom who was drafted by the Twins in the 48th round of the 2008 draft but decided to attend the University of Connecticut. Springer was called up by Houston on April 16 and has hit 11 homers since.
Hughes threw a fastball that was knee high and off the outside corner. Springer’s bat speed launched it 402 feet to right for a two-run homer.
“I had success going into that at bat with fastballs,” Hughes said. “It was one of those scenarios where it seemed like he was late off the fastballs the majority of the night.
“I could not get myself to throw him a cutter. I thought it would be into his bat speed at that point. And he put the barrel on it. What can you do?”