MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Late-afternoon shadows made the ball difficult to pick up, and Minnesota’s Sonny Gray presented a tough opponent on the mound.
The Houston Astros just powered their way through and produced yet another October masterpiece.
José Abreu hit a three-run homer for Houston in a four-run first inning against Gray and piled on with a two-run shot in the ninth, carrying the Astros past the Twins 9-1 on Tuesday for a 2-1 AL Division Series lead.
Yordan Alvarez hit his fourth home run in three games and Alex Bregman had a homer and an RBI single for the defending World Series champions, who took charge from their first at-bat and moved within one win of a seventh consecutive AL Championship Series appearance. Astros starter Cristian Javier took it from there with nine strikeouts in five scoreless innings.
“It was kind of just pass the torch to the next guy,” said Bregman, who has 16 postseason homers. “Put together a good at-bat and grind it out.”
Game 4 is at Target Field on Wednesday. If the Twins force Game 5, it would be in Houston on Friday.
“This was one of the reasons why I signed with this organization, to be in the best situation and compete,” said Abreu, who set his low with a .237 average this season, nearly 50 points below his career mark.
Splitting the first two games in Houston gave the Twins home-field advantage, and they sold out both games three days in advance. Johan Santana threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Joe Mauer, and the crowd the Twins credited for carrying them to a two-game sweep of Toronto in the AL Wild Card Series was roaring from the start.
The Astros were hardly going to be fazed by the environment. They went 51-30 on the road, the third-best record in the major leagues, and have made October games quite a habit since their run started in 2017.
“It’s a very confident club, not a cocky club. We don’t showboat too much. We just play,” manager Dusty Baker said. “The guys have a knack of picking each other up.”
Javier had a 4.56 ERA that was by far his worst in four big league seasons and failed to finish five innings in five of his prior 11 starts, but the Astros weren’t concerned.
“He has a slow heartbeat. He wants the baseball,” Bregman said. “He’s a competitor and we have all the confidence in the world in him every single time he takes the mound.”
The right-hander, who threw six hitless innings in World Series Game 4 last year to beat Philadelphia, lowered his career postseason ERA to 1.91 over 37 2/3 innings.
“Their guy did what I didn’t do. He executed pitches in spots with runners on,” Gray said.
With 13 misses in 16 swings at Javier’s slider, the Twins flailed through the shadows in a feeble response to the early Astros explosion. Javier allowed one hit, a one-out double by Max Kepler in the first, but he stranded two runners in scoring position with consecutive strikeouts of Royce Lewis and Carlos Correa.
With five walks and one hit batter, the Twins had plenty of opportunities to catch up. They loaded the bases on walks in the fifth inning, but Kepler and Lewis ended the inning with strikeouts.
The Twins left nine men on base and went 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position. Correa, who has a hit in all five postseason games and is 9 for 19 with four RBIs, scored on Willi Castro’s one-out single in the sixth. But Jeremy Peña made a diving stop at shortstop of a grounder rocketed by Ryan Jeffers and leaped to his feet to start a double play.
“It was a difficult day to hit, so them jumping out early was very, very important,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Whichever team did that was going to definitely be in the driver’s seat.”
Jose Altuve greeted Gray with a single, and a one-out bouncer down the first-base line eluded Alex Kirilloff’s glove for a two-base error. Kyle Tucker put the Astros on the board with a single. Then Abreu hit a 2-1 sweeper into the second deck for a 4-0 lead that took some buzz out of the ballpark.
“We were fighting an uphill battle as a team. I was fighting an uphill battle every inning,” Gray said.
Gray gave up two home runs in a game for the first time in two seasons with the Twins. The previous multi-homer game against him was on Sept. 24, 2021, with Cincinnati.
The eighth major league pitcher since 2000 to throw at least 180 innings with eight or fewer homers allowed, Gray was the runaway leader in fewest home runs allowed per nine innings this year (0.391). He gave up eight hits and one walk in four-plus innings, with five runs — one unearned — and six strikeouts.
“Thankfully we were able to get the right swings across,” Abreu said.
Alvarez is 6 for 12 with six RBIs in the series, and his four homers are tied for the most in the first three games of a single postseason with Juan Gonzalez (1996) and Bob Robertson (1971).
“He’s the best hitter in baseball,” Altuve said, “and hopefully he continues to hit like that.”
Astros RHP José Urquidy will start Game 4. He beat the Twins in Game 2 of the AL Wild Card Series in 2020. Twins RHP Joe Ryan will make his first career postseason start on Wednesday. He has allowed 13 earned runs, nine walks and three homers in 14 innings over three career starts against the Astros.
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