Weird things happen on the last day of the season in sports. When that particular season also happens to be a very condensed version of a normal MLB year thanks to COVID, it just amplifies it. In this case, for the Astros, there wasn't much mystery in terms of their spot. They were locked into the sixth seed at the end of last week. The only question was who would be their opponent.
The expectation for a while had been that the Oakland A's would win the division (they did) and wind up with the third seed to face the 'Stros. But a win in the final game of the season combined with a loss by the Twins found them switching places in the standings and sending Minnesota to a third seed and a first round matchup with Houston.
On first blush, this seems like a good thing. The Astros were an awful 3-8 versus the A's this year despite dominating Oakland for several seasons. But because of the unique schedule this year, the Astros haven't seen Minnesota a single time, only adding to the intrigue of their best-of-three Wild Card matchup.
So, let's break down the teams down and see how the Astros might fare.
At the Plate
The Twins thrive on power hitting. Where they might struggle with average, they make up for it with slugging from guys like Miguel Sano, Nelson Cruz, Eddie Rosario and Byron Buxton — all in double digits with home runs. The Astros counter with only one player — George Springer — with 14 dingers. Alex Bregman is beginning to come around and Kyle Tucker has been consistent, but they miss Yordan Alvarez. Up and down the lineup, the Twins are just the better team on offense and the Astros struggles at the plate have been noteworthy. Given that the series is in the Twin Cities, it makes it all the more difficult of a challenge.
On the Mound
The injury to Justin Verlander and the loss of Gerrit Cole in free agency takes quite a bit of the luster off the Astros pitching rotation. Zack Greinke has been just OK in his starting role. Fortunately, the Astros got Jose Urquidy back and Lance McCullers, Jr., after a short stint on the injured list, has been their best pitcher over the last few weeks. In addition, they have gotten very good performances from Framber Valdez and Christian Javier. The Twins are fifth in the majors in ERA from their rotation and boast an ace in Kenta Maeda who has been stellar.
The question in the bullpen. The Twins have been solid while the Astros have been wholly inconsistent. But add Valdez and Javier to a very young and relatively inexperienced 'pen and the outlook is a bit less clear. Still, this is certainly a strength for the Twinkies and not really for Houston.
In the Field
These are both quite solid defensive squads. They rank one (Astros) and two in errors per game and fielding percentage. But the Astros are statistically well above the Twinkies in assists, put outs and double plays. When Houston's offense has sputtered, it has typically been defense that has tried to save them. The very fact that they will likely need to depend on their defense to a much greater degree than Minnesota gives the Astros the edge here, albeit only slightly.
On the Bench
There is certainly criticism to be leveled against Astros skipper Dusty Baker. He's made some questionable lineup choices and some rather odd decisions throughout the season. But he, along with pitching coach Brent Strom bring a wealth of playoff experience with them to this veteran team. Twins manager Rocco Baldelli is practically half Baker's age, but his first two seasons in Minnesota have been a rousing success. Widely considered one of the bright young managers in the game, his lack of playoff seasoning will be put to the test by the wily veteran.
Behind the Scenes
From an intangibles perspective, you have to like the Astros chances. This is a veteran ballclub with stable leadership and loads of experience. They just haven't played very well this season. But, that doesn't mean they can't turn that around. The Twins are roughly the same age as the Astros on average, but some of that is dragged upward by Cruz (39), and pitchers like Sergio Romo (37) and Rich Hill (40). The meat of the Twins everyday lineup is fairly young compared to the Astros core. That should give the Astros the edge in intangibles, but it won't matter if they can't take advantage of it.
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As much as it pains us, this has just not been the Astros year and we cannot imagine the postseason will be any different. Both teams have floundered down the stretch, but the offense has been of a significant concern for Houston all season. Against a stout Twins rotation, it is hard to imagine them suddenly breaking out of their funk, which means an early postseason exit.
Prediction: Twins in 3