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Astros rely on long relievers to sweep Twins in AL Wild Card

Houston Astros pitcher Framber Valdez celebrates the final out as the Astros beat the Minnesota Twins 4-1 in Game 1 of an American League wild-card baseball series, Tuesday Sept. 29, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone)
Houston Astros pitcher Framber Valdez celebrates the final out as the Astros beat the Minnesota Twins 4-1 in Game 1 of an American League wild-card baseball series, Tuesday Sept. 29, 2020, in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Jim Mone) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

HOUSTON – The Houston Astros came into the AL Wild Card series vs. the Minnesota Twins as underdogs.

Houston’s pitching staff has been decimated by injury, leaving a rookie, a second-year pitcher and a righty recovering from Tommy John surgery making up 60% of the starting rotation against a team that hit 91 home runs in the 60-game regular season.

Despite a 29-31 record, the Astros swept the series easily. Here’s a look at what went right vs. the Twins.

‘Rispy’ business

After struggling with runners in scoring position, the Astros scored six of the team’s seven runs by either hitting in or walking with runners in scoring position. While Houston wasn’t overall impressive in RISP (runners in scoring position) situations, they did enough to beat the Twins.

The Astros scored just one run via homerun, which is a promising sign.

Long relief

Manager Dusty Baker chose to stick pitchers Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier in the bullpen instead of making the Game 2 start. It turned out to be an excellent choice, with Valdez and Javier combining to pitch eight scoreless innings. With both pitchers Zack Greinke and Jose Urquidy struggling with efficiency, the versatile pitchers were dominant.

In Game 1, Valdez came in with the Astros trailing 1-0 and shut down the Twins for five innings. Valdez’s long relief dominance in Game 1 can be a huge factor, especially when playing him off one of the Astros righty starters (read: all of the starters). Javier was unhittable in three innings in Game 2, walking two players and striking out two others. By using their No. 4 and No. 5 starters in long relief, the Astros can limit the use of their mediocre bullpen.

Defense wins championship

Part of the Astros' roster construction includes having one of the best defensive left sides in baseball.

Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa are regularly among defensive league leaders in their position and showed that in the Wild Card series.

Bregman’s range, as a former shortstop, and Correa’s strong-arm stopped some would-be hits. The Astros had an error in the series (a José Altuve throw), but also added an outfield assist from Kyle Tucker.

At least one of the three starters, Lance McCullers, Jr., is a heavy ground ball pitcher, and having fielders with great range has helped the Astros for years.