MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Houston Astros gathered in the clubhouse with their bottles and goggles to toast another postseason victory, when manager Dusty Baker called Justin Verlander forward to lead the celebration.
“I’m doing the World Series!” Baker said. “You do this one!”
Verlander, after a profanity-punctuated speech that had teammates roaring with laughter, started the cork-popping countdown at seven — one for each consecutive AL Championship Series appearance.
José Abreu homered for the third time in two games, a two-run rocket in the fourth inning that launched the Astros to their seventh straight ALCS with a 3-2 win that eliminated the Minnesota Twins in Game 4 of their Division Series on Wednesday night.
“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the bond that we have and the relationships that we have in this locker room, and we hold each other accountable in a good way,” said Verlander, who returned to the Astros in August via trade from the New York Mets. “Obviously, this team is built different. These guys are built different. When it’s time to step up, we play our best baseball.”
José Urquidy gave the defending World Series champion Astros another solid postseason start, withstanding home runs by Royce Lewis in the first and Edouard Julien in the sixth before handing the ball to the bullpen.
Hector Neris and Bryan Abreu combined for five strikeouts over 2 1/3 hitless innings. Ryan Pressly, who pitched five-plus years for the Twins before a trade to Houston in 2018, struck out the side in the ninth for the save. He froze Max Kepler with a full-count fastball to end it, leaving former Astros star Carlos Correa on deck.
“Oh yeah, we knew, and I was trying not to have nightmares, because I remember when Carlos was with us he hit that ball up in the right-center field seats up there,” Baker said, referring to Correa’s homer at Minnesota in a 2020 Wild Card Series. “But we never got to Carlos, so that was a great, great victory.”
Correa hit .409 with three doubles and four RBIs in the series.
“I wanted that at-bat so bad. I know Pressly very well, and it would’ve been a fun matchup,” Correa said. “It didn’t get there, but it’s the way it was supposed to be.”
Houston will host in-state rival Texas in Game 1 of the ALCS on Sunday, when Verlander is scheduled to make his 36th career postseason start.
“They know us, and we know them,” Baker said, “and it’s going to be a heck of a series.”
The Astros, who are 56-34 in the playoffs since 2017, hit 10 homers in the series. Abreu had eight RBIs.
“They never give up, and they understand that this is the time where the greats need to be good,” Abreu said through an interpreter.
Urquidy, much like Game 3 starter Cristian Javier, had an October track record to rely on after a forgettable regular season. The right-hander, who has logged 42 postseason innings and made his seventh start in the playoffs, missed three months with shoulder trouble this year.
Michael Brantley got the Astros started with a solo shot in the second against Twins starter Joe Ryan, who was pulled after that inning in manager Rocco Baldelli’s all-out attempt to extend the series.
Caleb Thielbar, the only left-hander on the roster, gave up a leadoff single in the fourth to Yordan Alvarez, a win for the Twins considering he had two doubles and four homers in the series. With one out, Abreu hit a 1-0 fastball to the opposite field for a 3-1 lead.
The rest of the relievers gave the Twins some energy back from the crowd, particularly when Chris Paddack pitched 2 1/3 hitless innings with four strikeouts. But the home team just didn’t have enough hits to overcome all those swings and misses.
Lewis gave the Twins another big-moment home run, a smash to left field with a similar trajectory to the one he hit in his first postseason at-bat in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series sweep over Toronto.
Bad luck cost them a critical extra run. Julien led off the game with a double, but Jorge Polanco followed with a line drive straight at Jeremy Peña that was sharp enough to give the shortstop time to make a diving tag on Julien for the double play.
“We didn’t get it done in this series,” Baldelli said. “We got beat, but I couldn’t be happier with what I saw from so many of our guys, and I told them that.”
The Astros hit four homers in their 9-1 win in Game 3, even taking Sonny Gray — the runaway major league leader in fewest home runs allowed per nine innings this year — deep twice.
Their patience, confidence and power made Ryan a vulnerable opponent, considering the right-hander was making his first career postseason start after allowing 24 homers over his last 14 turns. Hall of Fame member Bert Blyleven was the only other Twins pitcher to give up that many long balls in a 14-start span.
Twins batters set the all-time record with 1,654 strikeouts this year, a whopping 413 more whiffs than the Astros had with the third-fewest in baseball.
The only club with more consecutive league championship series appearances than Houston was Atlanta with eight NLCS trips from 1991-99. There were no playoffs in 1994 due to the players’ strike.
In just his sixth playoff game, Lewis tied Greg Gagne with four postseason home runs for the second-most in Twins history, one behind Hall of Fame member Kirby Puckett. Gagne and Puckett each played 24 postseason games on their way to winning World Series titles in 1987 and 1991.
Houston went 9-4 against the wild-card Rangers this season, giving the Astros the tiebreaker for the AL West title after both teams finished 90-72. Texas led the division for most of the year, but the Astros beat Arizona on the final day of the regular season and the Rangers lost at Seattle.
AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/MLB