The Houston Astros were not a good baseball team this season. They finished 29-31—the franchise’s first losing record since 2014, when it was still mired in a lengthy rebuild. Their lineup was below average, with mainstays like José Altuve struggling to hit for any sort of power. And their pitching depth was completely decimated by injuries, with Justin Verlander throwing in just one game, a bushel of relievers hurting, and a squadron of untested rookies taking their place.
Yet thanks to the expanded postseason bracket and a weak division, the Astros snuck into the playoffs anyway; before 2020, only one team had ever reached the playoffs with a losing record. And after two games against Minnesota’s misfortune machine, Houston is the first team to make the second round this year—four National League clubs hadn’t even started the playoffs yet by the time the Astros advanced.
Their series against the Twins was quick, and it was low scoring, with game margins of 4-1 and 3-1, and it went to the recent World Series champion that became the villain of the sport after the revelation of a sign-stealing scheme in that World Series season. The Astros ranked first in 2017, fifth in 2018, and first in 2019 in wRC+; that last mark was the second best in MLB history, behind only the Murderers’ Row Yankees. They fell to 17th this season, though they retained the lowest strikeout rate in the majors.
The Astros didn’t hit any better in the wild-card series against a game Twins pitching staff. Houston scored just seven total runs across the two games, with four coming in the ninth innings. Instead, Houston won with its pitching staff and a dose of short-series strategy.
In Game 1, starter Zack Greinke threw just four innings; down-ballot Cy Young candidate Framber Valdéz did the rest, tossing five frames of two-hit ball to secure the win. And in Game 2, rookie starter José Urquidy pitched 4 1/3 innings; the relieving bulk came from fellow rookie Cristian Javier, who didn’t allow a hit in three innings. The Astros’ youngsters are used to this “piggybacking” structure, a staple of the Houston minor-league system in recent seasons as a way to accustom pitchers to a regular schedule without overtaxing their arms.
New Astros manager Dusty Baker, who once upon a time gained some familiarity with overtaxing young arms, was responsible for adapting and implementing this tactic in a playoff series. “They’ve conditioned these guys to think they’ve done a good job after five or six innings or a third time around (the order) and that’s enough,” he said after Game 1. “It wasn’t me that conditioned them like that. It is what it is, so you sort of make an adjustment and you deal with it.”
He won’t be able to deal with it in the same manner next round, when the lack of off days will force Baker to dig deeper into his bullpen. But the Astros advanced without Verlander, without using Lance McCullers Jr. (who would have started Game 3 if needed), and without pushing Greinke.
They received help from the Twins—now losers of a record 18 consecutive playoff games—who are left to lament another lost postseason after another division title. Given the early start to the postseason this year, the Twins didn’t even make it to October.
Minnesota was not at full strength in this series: Josh Donaldson wasn’t on the wild-card roster, Byron Buxton didn’t start Game 2, and Eddie Rosario was ejected in that game to further deplete the club’s outfield depth. But Minnesota also failed to capitalize on a number of chances, while gifting Houston prime opportunities. In both games, the Twins loaded the bases in the first inning but didn’t score. In Game 1, Houston scored the winning runs in the ninth inning after a Jorge Polanco error with two outs, followed by a bases-loaded walk. In Game 2, Luis Arraez was thrown out at home trying to score from first base on a double; the eighth inning ended when Buxton, who had entered as a pinch runner, was picked off and caught in a rundown.
But their greatest sin of all might be energizing the Astros, who looked dispirited for much of Game 1 before coming to life in that ninth inning. Aside from George Springer, Houston’s core wasn’t the same this season—Altuve’s wRC+ fell 61 points compared to last season, Yuli Gurriel’s fell 53, and Alex Bregman’s and Carlos Correa’s both fell 46 apiece. Draw your own conclusions about why (though note that the Astros were not found to have cheated in 2019); in any case, they didn’t seem anywhere close to the threat that they had represented at their braggadocious best.
Now the Astros are back where they’re familiar, with a one-in-eight shot at a title and no jeering fans in the way of their march through the bracket. Their next trip is to the “bubble” in Los Angeles, where they will play either the Athletics or White Sox. Whichever of those clubs advances will have won its first playoff series in more than a decade; the Astros, by comparison, have now won seven series since 2017.
The Twins were a better regular-season team in all phases of the game: offense, defense, rotation, bullpen. But that advantage doesn’t matter in such a small sample as a best-of-three baseball series, and that advantage certainly doesn’t matter when going up against such opposing strains of playoff luck. It makes sense that the Astros wouldn’t lose this early, anyway—no good story eliminates the villain in the first act.