HOUSTON – Rocco Baldelli faced Justin Verlander in a game nearly 13 years ago and took a called strike three, but the Twins manager said he has no recollection of it. Verlander did his best to jog his memory Wednesday.
With eight vintage innings of first-pitch strikes, plenty of soft contact and a strikeout or two in nearly every inning, Verlander became the 10th pitcher to record 20 wins vs. the Twins, a group that includes four members of the same Hall of Fame he will someday join, and he made it look as easy as ever.
The Twins sent more than three batters to the plate only three times, scratched out only four hits and reached second base only twice, ending a road trip that included plenty of offensive fireworks in hear-a-pin-drop hush: A 7-1 loss to Houston at Minute Maid Park.
“He’s that good at what he does,” Baldelli said. “When you face guys of this caliber, you generally can’t play good. You have to play a great game.”
The Twins couldn’t. Kohl Stewart, who matched Verlander zero-for-zero in a visit to his hometown last September, answered the Twins’ emergency call for a starting pitcher competently enough against the AL’s best hitting lineup, giving up five runs over six innings, three of them on home runs by Carlos Correa and Michael Brantley. Stewart walked three, struck out one and generally fought his way out of trouble, a promising sign for the 24-year-old former first-round pick.
“Kohl battled. He kept us in the game, handled some adversity well,” Baldelli said. “He picked us up in a big way, gave us six innings.”
But Stewart was no match this time for the routine brilliance of Verlander, who has given up only nine hits over his past three starts, all by-the-numbers victories.
Verlander struck out Max Kepler on three pitches to open the game, strike three coming on a vintage 95-mph high fastball Kepler couldn’t catch, and the tone was set. Verlander retired the first 10 batters he faced, until Jorge Polanco took advantage of a rare mistake, a fastball left in the middle of the plate, and lined it into the right-field seats. Some in the announced crowd of 26,582 applauded, a sign that thoughts of a no-hitter had already crept in.
Verlander wasn’t perfect, but he didn’t have to be. Eddie Rosario turned a ground-ball deflection off Jose Altuve’s glove into a double, Willians Astudillo lined a single and Ehire Adrianza singled in the eighth, but the Twins, after averaging 7.8 runs in their previous five games of this trip, never threatened a rally.
Verlander left after eight innings, his 20th career victory against Minnesota (against nine losses over 37 career starts) secure. It was the eighth time in the MVP and Cy Young winner’s career that he had pitched at least seven innings vs. the Twins and given up one run or less.
Been there, done that.
“Our guys went out there and competed well,” Baldelli said. “This was a day where we just got beat.”
Stewart pitched a scoreless first inning in front of about 20 friends and family members, but Correa led off the second inning with a home run off the foul pole in right field. An inning later, Alex Bregman hit a two-out double off the wall in left field, then trotted home on Brantley’s long home run to right.
Stewart gave up two more runs in the fourth inning on a walk, an RBI double to Robinson Chirinos and two wild pitches.
“Obviously I wish I could have a couple back. Maybe trying to be a little too fine, fell behind a couple of hitters,” said Stewart, who was sent back to Class AAA Rochester after the game.
The Twins, who started the road trip with a three-game sweep of the Orioles and a mostly lopsided victory over the Astros on Monday, come home after dropping the final two games. The same two opponents are scheduled to visit Target Field in the upcoming week.
“It was a very good trip,” Baldelli said. “Coming in here is a difficult place to play, and it’s against a good team. But our guys battled pretty well, and it was good to win a game here.”