HOUSTON – As Jose Altuve’s bases-loaded line drive whizzed past Kevin Jepsen’s head Saturday, he thought he had lost the game.
“To be honest, I thought it was a base hit,” the Twins’ interim closer said. “I really did.”
Then he remembered who his outfielders are. On a night when the Twins played their super-speedy Outfield of the Future for the first time, it paid immediate dividends. Byron Buxton came racing in and leaned forward, catching Altuve’s liner, rolling over and cementing a 3-2 victory over the Astros in Minute Maid Park.
Jepsen was shakier than he’s been in any save situation as a Twin, allowing a solo home run to Jed Lowrie and loading the bases with a hit and two walks. But Aaron Hicks made a difficult catch after losing a fly ball in the lights, and Buxton made the game’s final play, earning the Twins their 70th victory and matching their win total of a year ago.
“I think I owe a couple of guys some cold ones,” Jepsen said with a smile.
There were lots of smiles about this win, which felt like a historic occasion even before it began, simply for the arrival of all three young outfielders — Buxton, Hicks and Eddie Rosario. Twins manager Paul Molitor called it “exciting prospect” before the game. Imagine how he felt afterward, after their contributions on defense were only half the story.
Buxton produced a run that few players could have, Hicks contributed a crucial bunt single, and Rosario won the game with a two-run ninth-inning triple. Combined with Ervin Santana’s second straight brilliant start, the Twins felt pretty good afterward.
“It’s going to be fun to watch those guys play,” Molitor said.
And not just on defense. They figure to hit, too, though consistency is hard to come by for young players.
Rookie Lance McCullers held the Twins without a hit in the first five innings, but Buxton led off the sixth with what looked like a routine single to center field. But he rounded first and kept on going, diving into second base as Carlos Gomez’s throw bounced in.
“Well, that was pretty electrifying,” Molitor said. “Gomez understood right away who’s hitting, there was no wasted motion on his part. Then you peek around first and he’s halfway to second base, and game on.”
Hicks then laid down a bunt that McCullers fielded, but couldn’t throw to first in time, with Buxton moving to third. He scored on Brian Dozier’s double-play ball, a run that never would have happened if Buxton hadn’t taken that extra base.
“I was trying to sacrifice him over, give Dozier a chance to drive him in, and it turned out being enough to get a hit,” Hicks said. “It couldn’t have been a bigger play.”
The score was still tied 1-1 in the ninth, when Rosario came up with Dozier, who singled, on second base and Trevor Plouffe, hit in the ribs by a pitch from reliever Luke Gregerson, at first. Rosario got behind 0-and-2, fouled off three pitches, then hit a looping fly ball down the right field line.
Outfielder George Springer dived but couldn’t hold on to the ball. Rosario hustled to third base, his 11th triple of the season, and Dozier and Plouffe scored ahead of him.
Santana followed up his 10-strikeout performance against the Astros last Sunday by striking out 11 this time, the first Twins pitcher to reach double digits in back-to-back games since Francisco Liriano in 2012. His only glitch was an RBI double by Astros rookie Preston Tucker in the fifth inning that scored Marwin Gonzalez. That ended Santana’s streak of 11 scoreless innings.