The Twins own the best record in baseball, and it’s no longer possible to argue that an easy schedule is the reason.
Jason Castro homered, doubled and drove in four runs, Byron Buxton tripled home a run and made another spectacular running catch, and Jose Berrios seemed to work his way into and out of trouble on a whim. It all added up to an 8-2 victory over the AL West-leading Houston Astros in Target Field on Thursday, and an impressive victory in the season series against a true pennant contender.
“It’s huge for us. … We got a feeling of what we can do through the season,” said Twins infielder Marwin Gonzalez, a former Astros player who has some experience at winning championships. “In the past few weeks, we played good ball against Philadelphia and we lost two games by one run. We played good ball against New York, one of the better teams in the National League, too. We have been showing we can compete.”
Houston’s stated goal for 2019, two seasons after its first World Series championship, is to “Take It Back,” as posters plastered around its home park exhort, and if that’s the level the Astros aspire to, the Twins have to be wondering whether they can challenge for one, too. The Twins, their record fattened by sweeping eight games against the lowly Royals and Orioles, took three out of four games from the Astros this week, and perhaps most heartening is how they did it.
The Twins and Astros scored 15 runs apiece in the series, but only because Houston’s lone victory, against Michael Pineda, the Twins’ shakiest starting pitcher thus far, was an 11-0 blowout. Jake Odorizzi, Martin Perez and Berrios, on the other hand, held the team with the league’s highest batting average to two runs and 15 hits over 22 innings, a 0.82 ERA.
“It was amazing. We have the talent on the mound, too,” Gonzalez said. “We don’t have the big names, but they’re going to do good during the season.”
The Twins offense has been billed as a powerhouse since spring training, and sure enough, Minnesota reeled off seven extra-base hits Thursday, including Castro’s third home run of the season. But if the pitching can hold up this well against the AL’s elite, the Twins’ chances of winning their first division title in nine years greatly increase.
“If you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. For a couple of years, [the Astros] have been the best, but we believe we’re the best now,” said second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who added two hits and an RBI Thursday. “We believe we’re the best team in the league.”
Then again, they’re spending this weekend at their own house of horrors: Yankee Stadium, where the Twins have lost 12 of their past 13 games.
“We’re not afraid of anyone,” Schoop said. “From one to nine, we can do damage.”
Houston thought it could do damage to Berrios, especially after the first 10 batters to face him collected four hits, including Alex Bregman’s first-inning homer. But Berrios stranded Aledmys Diaz at second base after a second-inning double by inducing a harmless pop-up by Robinson Chirinos. And in the third inning, after leadoff singles by Tony Kemp and George Springer, Berrios struck out Jose Altuve by blowing a fastball clocked at 95 mph past him on the outside corner. He got Bregman to fly to right and struck out Michael Brantley to end the inning.
“He went to [his fastball] in several different situations in this game, when maybe some other games, he went with his offspeed stuff,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It was a nice adjustment on his end.”
Once he settled in, Berrios, who has won his past four starts, retired 12 consecutive hitters — one of them, Yuli Gurriel, on a dead-sprint-and-jump catch by Buxton at the wall in right-center. Three singles and a sacrifice fly in the seventh cost Berrios a second run, but he retired Springer on a routine fly ball to avoid letting Houston rally.
“He shows a lot of maturity,” Baldelli said of Berrios, who didn’t walk a batter for the second game in a row en route to his fifth victory, tied for the most in the majors. “It was a very well-pitched game.”
The Twins put the game away with a six-run fourth inning off Astros starter Brad Peacock. Castro doubled home two runs, and Buxton followed with a triple to drive Castro home. Back-to-back doubles by Jorge Polanco and Nelson Cruz completed the big inning.
“I enjoy watching this group out there,” Berrios said of his offense. “That’s the way we’ve played so far this season. We’ve played well, so well.”