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3 keys for Minnesota Twins to upset the Houston Astros in the ALDS

The Minnesota Twins are headed to Houston to take on the Astros in the American League Division Series, which begins on Saturday. Houston has appeared in six straight American League Championship Series and are the defending World Series champions. On paper, this is not the matchup the baseball world was hoping for in order to see that streak snapped.

Yet, after the Twins swept the Toronto Blue Jays in the Wild Card round, maybe we’re seeing a different Twins team than we’ve become accustomed to over the years. They did snap an 18-game losing streak in the postseason after all. Why not keep snapping streaks?

The oddsmakers have the Astros as the heavy favorites in this series, and it’s easy to see why with the roll the franchise has been on since 2017. Even in 2020 when they were owned by the Oakland A’s during the regular season, going just 3-7, the Astros left no doubt in anyone’s mind who the better team was in the postseason, beating Oakland 3-1.

For Minnesota this series will be an uphill climb, but there are also some reasons that we can point to that could have an impact on how this series shakes out with Minnesota potentially pulling off the upset.

Related: Who has the easiest path to the 2023 World Series?

Houston Astros home woes

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Houston Astros
Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Of the 12 teams that made the postseason, the Astros were the only team to have a losing record playing at home, finishing with a 39-42 record. The Angels, who missed the playoffs by 16 games, were only one game worse at their own home ballpark than Houston. While that may not be a huge factor in a seven-game series, with only five games to play and Houston having home-field advantage, there are fewer chances to hide their home woes if this trend continues.

Houston had the second-best road offense in baseball with a 118 wRC+ (100 is league average), behind the ridiculous offense of the Atlanta Braves. At home, those bats ranked 12th in baseball with a 105 wRC+, just above league average. Now, to be fair, the Twins road offense is right about on par with the Astros home squadron, and the teams match up pretty closely when the Twins are at home and the Astros are on the road (117 wRC+ for Minnesota).

The Twins ranked fifth in baseball in ERA this season. And while the four teams ahead of them (Milwaukee, San Diego, Seattle, and Toronto) either missed the playoffs or have already been eliminated, Minnesota also had the best strikeout rate in baseball at 25.9% and was tied for the third-lowest walk rate (7.3%). That could prove to be a separating factor. In their two playoff games thus far, Twins pitching has struck out 19 and walked just five. Having faced 72 total batters in the two games, that works out to a 26% strikeout rate and a 6.8% walk rate against the Jays, or right in line with their regular season numbers.

Now, we’re not necessarily talking about the Minnesota Twins taking the first two games of the series before it shifts to Minneapolis and only needing a split to advance. Instead, a split by the Twins of the first two games would mean that they could finish the series at home themselves in Game 4.

Bailey Ober is getting the nod for Minnesota in Game 1 against Justin Verlander, and that may seem like a tall order. But Verlander faltered last October, allowing 13 runs in 20 innings pitched, including a six-run outburst by the Mariners in four Division Series innings. The Houston Astros don’t have the same reinforcements this year that they did a season ago to weather Verlander not being right.

Pablo López, the Twins’ Game 1 starter last round who helped break the franchise’s 0-18 streak, should be ready for Game 2 against Framber Valdez and may offer the best chance for Minnesota to earn that split in the first two.

Sonny Gray should also be ready for Game 3 in this series, and outside of Valdez and Justin Verlander, there are some question marks in the Houston rotation, which makes those home games for Minnesota crucial. Verlander would be ready to go again on five days’ rest for Game 5 if the series went the distance, so it would likely be in Minnesota’s best interest to wrap this series up in four, and they may have the opportunity to do just that against Houston’s questionable third and fourth options in the rotation.

Related: AL Division Series preview and prediction: Who moves on to the ALCS?

Minnesota Twins star Carlos Correa’s redemption series

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Houston Astros
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

In his time with the Houston Astros, Carlos Correa seemed to revel in playing the part of the heel after the cheating scandal, absorbing boos and dishing out punishment to opposing pitchers. He’s held his hand up to his ear like Hulk Hogan after a monster hit on numerous occasions, and he may have reason to do so again, coming back to Houston presumably as public enemy number one. But that could work out well for Minnesota.

First off, he’s a career .276 hitter with a .348 on-base percentage (OBP) and 18 homers in 81 postseason games. He loves performing in a big spot, and this may be the biggest stage of his career, returning to Houston as an underdog in what should be a hostile environment.

This is important because this will be Minnesota’s first postseason games in enemy territory, and if Correa is taking the brunt of the boos and taking some of the focus away from the rest of the roster, they may be able to settle in a little quicker than usual and find the groove they need to get things done in Houston. Correa missed the last two weeks of the regular season only to be activated for the Wild Card series where he went 3-for-7 and was hit by a pitch.

It may not matter to the Twins’ shortstop, but a big series here could help how he is viewed among opposing fan bases. Those boos could turn to cheers if he helps stop the reign of Houston that he helped create.

The Royce Lewis effect for the Minnesota Twins

MLB: Wildcard-Toronto Blue Jays at Minnesota Twins
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Rookie Royce Lewis put the Twins on his back in Game 1 and hit two monster home runs in his first two at-bats on Tuesday. Minnesota’s pitching did the rest of the work, allowing just one run in the series, but it was Lewis’ bat that set the tone for what was to come. It doesn’t have to be Lewis again in the ALDS (though he’d be a pretty good bet to have at least one big game), but someone on the Twins needs to step up and show everyone that they’re not just happy to have broken the streak and won a series, they’re here to win another series.

Momentum is real in the postseason, and Lewis made sure that the Minnesota Twins secured that momentum in Game 1. Aside from Correa, there aren’t a lot of guys with long track records that could be the steadying force for Minnesota, but one option could be to give backup catcher and former Astro Christian Vázquez a start in one of the first two games. Yes, he hit .223 with a .280 OBP this season, but he’s a better catcher than Ryan Jeffers, which could help settle down the pitching staff on the road. He also has a little bit of pull side pop, and with the Crawford Boxes sitting right there in left, he could provide that needed jolt for the Twins.

Another player to keep an eye on will be Jorge Polanco, who in 15 career games at Minute Maid Park is 17-for-60 with six home runs. In 23 career at-bats, Donovan Solano is 9-for-23 (.391) in Houston, including going 3-for-7 there at the end of May. Alex Kiriloff is 5-for-8 with five walks, all of which came this year. Yes, these are all small sample sizes, but that’s kind of the point. The playoffs are a small sample size to determine the best team in baseball every year. If we wanted the most accurate measure of 2023, we likely would have awarded the Atlanta Braves the World Series trophy.

Small sample sizes matter in the postseason, and sometimes it just takes enough pitching (check) and a player or two to get hot to carry a team to the next round. The Twins may not win the series based on Houston’s track record, but they also shouldn’t be the pushovers people are expecting.

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