Minnesota Twins vs Houston Astros Series Preview

May 1, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve (27) celebrates his first inning solo home run against the Oakland Athletics with shortstop Carlos Correa (1) at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports.
May 1, 2016; Oakland, CA, USA; Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve (27) celebrates his first inning solo home run against the Oakland Athletics with shortstop Carlos Correa (1) at O.co Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports. /

Minnesota Twins Entering “Must Win” Territory

It’s hard to label any series a “must win” in May, much less the first week of May. But the Twins (7-18) and Houston Astros (8-17) are both treading dangerous waters with their respective starts. Both teams were the surprise contenders in the American League last year. While the Twins fell short on the final weekend of the season, the Houston Astros were six outs away from defeating the eventual World Series winners, Kansas City, and leading 6-2 before their bullpen fell apart at home.

Now, one month into the 2016 season, both teams are in last place in their respective divisions.  The Twins trail the Central-leading White Sox by 10.5 games, while the Astros trail the West-leading Texas Rangers by 6 games, and barely lead the Twins by a half game to avoid having the worst record in the AL.

Minnesota will look to win its first road series this year, a tall task considering they have won just one road game thus far (1-10). They face the tall task of trying to defeat last year’s AL Cy Young award-winner, Dallas Keuchel, at Minute Maid Park. He currently has won his last 17 decisions (franchise record) at home. In those 22 Keuchel starts, the Astros have a 20-2 record.

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Minnesota and Houston played each other 6 times last season, each winning two of three in their home park. Last September at Minute Maid Park, the Astros outscored the Twins 18-8, scoring 8 runs in each of its wins. The lone Twins win in Houston last year was won with Eddie Rosario‘s 2-run triple in the top of the 9th, breaking up a 1-1 pitcher’s duel between Ervin Santana and Lance McCullers – with Santana picking up win #4, and new closer Kevin Jepsen narrowly escaping the ninth with a 3-2 win. Both Santana and McCullers will not pitch in this series, as both are currently on their team’s respective disabled lists.

Monday Night Game

Jose Berrios (0-1, 11.25 ERA) vs Dallas Keuchel (2-3, 4.41 ERA)

7:10 Minute Maid Park

TV: Fox Sports North

Tuesday Night Game

Alex Meyer (0-0, 18.00 ERA) vs Colin McHugh (2-3, 6.65 ERA)

7:10 Minute Maid Park

TV: Fox Sports North

Wednesday Night Game

Phil Hughes (1-4, 4.45 ERA) vs Mike Fiers (2-1, 4.97 ERA)

7:10 Minute Maid Park

TV: Fox Sports North

Houston: The Astros salvaged a win in the series finale against the Oakland A’s. A win tonight would give them their first consecutive wins of the 2016 season. Yes, they are struggling as much as the Minnesota Twins are this year. Houston has won one series this season, taking two of three against the Tigers in mid-April, leaving their record at that time at 5-8. They promptly lost 7 of their next 8 games.

Offense: The Astros are currently 26th (out of 30) in the league in hitting (.228). They do have 30 home runs (ranking 9th), but they counter that by striking out a league high 246 times. Twins are 4th on that list, with 225. Second baseman, Jose Altuve, the 2014 batting champion and 3 time All-Star, leads the majors with 18 extra base hits, including 7 homers. Colby Rasmus (who was the first player in MLB history to accept a qualifying offer in the off-season), is tied with Altuve for the team lead in HRs (7), and leads Houston with 20 RBI, good for 3rd in the American League.

Player to Watch: Jose Altuve. Houston’s best player when the Astros were consistently finishing at the bottom of the standing, Altuve has increased his power numbers since getting better help in the lineup. Last year, he hit a career-high 15 home runs, and is building on that with 7 already this year.

Pitching: Their strength last year was their starting pitching. Two of their starters won 19 or more games last year, with Keuchel winning 20 and Colin McHugh winning 19. The Astros got 59 wins (out of 86) from their starting staff last year, which was middle of the pack, yet their starters were second in the majors in number of innings pitched by their starting staff, averaging 6.1 IP/GS. The New York Mets were first with 6.2.

Player to Watch: The aforementioned Dallas Keuchel. He threw 232 innings last year, striking out 216. His 6.1 WAR was ranked 6th among all pitchers last year. Keuchel was 1-0 against Minnesota last year, winning his 17th game in an 8-5 win, though the Minnesota Twins tagged him for three home runs (Dozier, Escobar, and Hicks), accounting for all three of their runs off Keuchel in the game. That was the game in which Trevor May surrendered a grand slam, and Neal Cotts a 3-run home run in relief for Tyler Duffey, who had started and pitched well.

Minnesota: Coming off their 5th series sweep loss this year, the Twins are at least facing a team with a losing record. Twins are 0-15 against teams with a winning record, 7-3 against teams with a losing record. Jose Berrios looks to make his second start of his career in tonight’s first game, while Alex Meyer makes his first career start (after 3 career relief appearances) for the Twins in game two on Tuesday.

Meyer began his minor league career as a starter, then the Twins moved him to a reliever last year. Now this year, they have stretched him out once again as a starter. Meyer pitched one inning in relief in Friday’s loss to Detroit. He gave up 5 hits (2 runs), with a strikeout and a walk. He made starts at AAA Rochester this year, and posted a 1.04 ERA, earning the call-up.

Tommy Milone will pitch out of the bullpen, mostly as a long reliever. Milone’s numbers the first time through a team’s lineup were stellar, as the .194 batting average against would attest. The numbers got progressively worse each successive time (.333 & .667) through the order, prompting management to move Milone out of the rotation and into the bullpen. As a reliever, Milone will rarely go through a lineup more than once, so hopefully those numbers will hold up in relief.

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Twins are on a four gaming losing streak, with opposing batters hitting .327 during those four games. Twins pitchers allowed 6, 9, 4, and 6 runs in those four losses (6.25 avg).

Notes: Former Twin, and crowd favorite while with the Twins, Carlos Gomez, has missed the last two games with a rib injury. He is doubtful for the series, and may be placed on the disabled list. Trevor Plouffe, who is eligible to come off the disabled list with his own rib cage injury (inter-costal muscle strain) tonight, may be held out until tomorrow’s game.

Joe Mauer looks to extend his streak of reaching base – he has reached in all 25 games for the Twins this year. He’ll play first base tonight, and bat third. Danny Santana will bat lead-off once again, with Brian Dozier hitting second. Byung-ho Park will DH in hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park.

Good News Department: Ervin Santana says his back is feeling better, the disable list doing its job by letting him rest up. Santana is scheduled to pitch in a simulated game tomorrow. He will be on a 30 pitch limit. Eligible to return from the DL in Chicago, his timetable for a return will hinge on how his back feels after tomorrow.