After three frustrating innings against Houston’s wildly effective young stud Lance McCullers Jr., the Twins offense put its collective foot down in the fourth inning, hanging a snowman on the blue-chipper, who was unable to finish the inning before manager A.J. Hinch went to get him.
The Twins had to weather the storm the rest of the way, and didn’t do a particularly good job.
At least not until Max Kepler stepped in.
Here’s what we saw from our vantage point:
Kepler had the game of his life…
It wasn’t Kepler’s first walkoff homer — that came in 2016 against Boston’s Matt Barnes — but it was probably more meaningful, considering the Twins had squandered a seven-run lead and also keeping in mind the expectations for this team and how that season ended.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t even Kepler’s only homer on the day, as he took McCullers deep in the fourth inning as well, as he reached base twice in the inning after leading it off with a walk. All told, Kepler went 2-for-4 with a walk and boosted his season line to a stellar .281/.395/.625. His evolution is extremely exciting from a breakout potential standpoint.
…and was grilled like a bratwurst afterward
Mr. Germany Keplert, meet Sid Hartman
My two favorite takeaways from this interaction:
Jason Castro may have taken the worst at-bat of the season
A three-pitch strikeout is never a great thing for a hitter, but considering down and distance, this one was especially ugly. McCullers had motored through three scoreless innings, outpitching an ugly ball-strike ratio by keeping the Twins eating out of his hands with an obscene knucklecurve that he ran to the plate as high as 91.6 mph at one point per Statcast.
Seriously, 91.6 mph on a pitch that curves. How.
The fourth inning opened with four-pitch walks to Kepler and Byron Buxton with Castro due up next. Big leaguers play by different rules than normal humans do. If we’re playing in a Legion or Townball game, most of us will take a 3-0 pitch. We’ll make the pitcher throw a strike if he walks the guy ahead of us on four pitches. We’ll definitely make the guy throw us a strike if he’s missed on eight pitches in a row.
Big leaguers, instead, might like to ambush in that situation. Hitters at that level are good enough to absolutely massacre a pitch if they know what’s coming. Like for instance, I saw Doug Mientkiewicz homer on a 3-0 pitch in San Francisco against Damian Moss — lefty-lefty, even — so it’s not like it has to be the most incredible hitter in the world to do this kind of thing.
With that said, Castro swung at the first pitch and made enough contact to foul it off. It was out of the zone, and wasn’t well struck — neither of which are good indicators for an ambush swing. Castro followed that up with a pair of hacks on knucklecurves out of the zone for a strikeout, and suddenly McCullers was back in business with one out and No. 9 hitter Ehire Adrianza coming to bat.
Now, the Twins came around to score eight runs in the inning, but this one might last for a while as one of the worst at-bats a hitter takes — at least in isolation — for the team this season. Don’t forget — it was 1-0 Astros at the time.
Overall, it was a pretty ugly half-inning for Stanford guys, as Hinch more or less hung McCullers out to dry.
Gibson was handed a seven-run lead, and while he didn’t hand it back, couldn’t throw strikes
In Gibson’s defense, he sat around for a very long time before going back out for the top of the fifth. But the unmistakable fact was that he was staked to an 8-1 lead and only needed to record two more outs to complete the fifth inning and be in line for the vaunted “win” which means less and less as days go by.
Gibson fanned George Springer on four pitches with a nasty changeup low in the zone, but then completely unraveled as the next four batters reached before manager Paul Molitor gave him the quick hook. Overall, the line was not pretty, as Gibson lasted just 4.1 innings with five runs (all earned), seven hits, four strikeouts and four walks.
The Twins offense, sponsored by Aerosmith
The Astros managed to fan 12 Twins batters, but also walked seven as every Minnesota batter but Brian Dozier and Castro walked in the game. Nobody walked more than once, but it was a nice offensive effort with the sticks, and also the eyeballs.
McCullers may have been nasty for three innings, but Hinch let him eat it in the fourth
By my count, Hinch saw McCullers throw 36 pitches before he went out to get him immediately after Kepler’s first homer left the yard. In fact, Hinch nearly met Kepler on the third base line on his way out to get his pitcher, who was likely steamed he was left in to stew like that. Overall, McCullers fanned six batters, walked six and threw just 48 strikes on 95 pitches.
Still, nearly 40 pitches and facing 10 batters in the same inning? That feels like MLB malpractice.
Ultimately, it’s hard not to be impressed with what the Twins offense did over the last two days, chasing a former Cy Young winner and potentially a future one in four innings or less in consecutive games. Not bad.
What was your favorite Jake Marisnick moment?
In a bit of managerial strategery in the seventh, Hinch pinch hit Marisnick for Derek Fisher with lefty Zach Duke on the mound. Manager Paul Molitor countered by going to get Addison Reed out of the bullpen, and Hinch turned that around by bringing in Marwin Gonzalez to pinch-hit.
Molitor probably won that exchange. Reed against a lefty swinger isn’t a terrible matchup — .235/.294/.354 career line v. LHH — and after throttling the first pitch he saw foul, Gonzalez struck out on three pitches after two more sheepish swings on sliders.
Reed is (still) a bad man
Zach Duke put the Twins in a big hole in the seventh inning, with a walk to Josh Reddick, another to J.D. Davis and both of those sandwiched around hitting Max Stassi with a pitch. With one out, the bases loaded and the Twins leading 8-6, Reed came in and got Gonzalez on three pitches before turning the order over to Springer, who hit a lazy fly to Eddie Rosario in left.
Reed didn’t throw a single pitch over 90 in that stretch, yet still fully dominated. He came back for the eighth, and after an Alex Bregman infield single came back with three straight fly ball outs as he cut through the teeth of the Houston order with the game on the line.
There’s a lot of season left and plenty of time on his two-year deal signed over the offseason, but Reed is a bad, bad man and a terrific signing for the Twins this winter.
Fernando Rodney blew the save, but it wasn’t *entirely* his fault
Don’t get it twisted — we’re not about to argue Rodney deserved better — but it just wasn’t all his fault the Astros tied the game up in the ninth. Evan Gattis opened the inning with a single before Stassi fanned looking. Davis followed with a single and Gonzalez walked to load the bases.
Rodney got Springer to hit a grounder to Morrison at first, and LoMo looked to start his second nifty 3-6-1 double play of the day. His throw to Dozier was on the mark, but Dozier’s back to Rodney was wide of the bag, and the closer couldn’t track it down as it ultimately got into the camera well, allowing the tying run to come home. Rodney ultimately got Bregman to line out to left — no small task since he was a triple shy of the cycle — but not before being tagged with a blown save, his first as a Twin.
At least he got the win, right? *SIGH*