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Zulgad: Out with a bang? Twins get a chance to send disgraced Astros home for the winter

Jose Altuve
Houston Astros’ Jose Altuve walks to the dugout after scoring on a triple by Alex Bregman during the first inning of the team’s baseball game against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The Twins’ 5-3, 10-inning loss to the Reds on Sunday at Target Field had not yet been completed when Nomar Mazara was called out on strikes with a man on first to end the White Sox’s rally in a 10-8 loss to the Chicago Cubs on the South Side.
That gave the Twins their second consecutive American League Central title and also meant something else: The Twins would be far better off making sure the Reds did not lose their lead. If the Twins were to rally and beat Cincinnati, they would have jumped over Oakland into the second seed in the AL and played host to the White Sox in the best-of-three opening round of the postseason starting Tuesday.
The AL Central foes had met 10 times this season, splitting the series, and while the White Sox had a rough end to their season, they also are a talented group that is capable of powering its way to victories. A loss to the Reds, however, meant the Twins would meet the Houston Astros in the first round. Houston was locked into the sixth-seed in the AL as the second-place team in the West, but they were one of only two teams in MLB to qualify for the playoffs with a losing record. (The Astros and Brewers both finished 29-31).
If the Twins had to pick an opponent, it was going to be the once powerful and now disgraced trash-can banging Astros, although manager Rocco Baldelli wasn’t about to admit that. “We were going to play to win,” Sunday’s game, Baldelli said. “We were going out there to win the ballgame.”
Fortunately for Baldelli his players did not succeed, leaving the Twins to publicly celebrate their AL Central title on the field, while privately celebrating the fact that a loss actually had been a win and put them in pretty good position to end an MLB-record 16-game losing streak in the playoffs.
This much is certain. The 2020 Astros aren’t the club that beat the Dodgers in the 2017 World Series and lost in seven games to the Washington Nationals last season. Houston is headed to the postseason for the fifth time in six years, but the Astros are only going this time because MLB dreamed up a playoff format in a pandemic shortened-season that is more NHL and NBA than it is baseball.
The Astros were exposed as cheaters last offseason, having used an elaborate scheme that employed stealing signs and then using bangs on a trash can to signal what pitch was coming. Current Twin Marwin Gonzalez reportedly was one of the beneficiaries of the cheating in 2017 and apologized upon his arrival last February for the beginning of spring training with the Twins.
While no Astros players were suspended, manager AJ Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were given a one-season suspension and the team was stripped of first- and second-round draft picks for the next two seasons by commissioner Rob Manfred. The franchise also was fined $5 million and owner Jim Crane fired Hinch and Luhnow, with veteran manager Dusty Baker taking over.
The Astros were expected to be the subject of ridicule by fans throughout baseball until the coronavirus pandemic delayed the season until late July. Houston players also caught a significant break when the decision was made to have no fans allowed into games during the regular season.
Some of the Astros’ key players appear to have been impacted by not having the benefit of knowing what pitch is coming. Second baseman Jose Altuve, a six-time All-Star and the AL MVP in 2017, hit only .219/.286/.344 with five homers and 18 RBIs in 48 games this season. Third baseman Alex Bregman, a two-time All-Star, slashed .242/.350/.451 with six homers and 22 RBIs in 42 games.
Houston also is without starter Justin Verlander, who recently said he needs Tommy John surgery. Their Game 1 starter will be former Cy Young award winner Zack Greinke, who was 3-3 with a 4.03 ERA in 12 starts this season. He went 8-1 with a 3.02 ERA in 10 starts after being acquired by the Astros from Arizona last season and then was 0-2 in five postseason starts with a 4.68 ERA.
The Twins will send ace Kenta Maeda to the mound Tuesday, before following with righthander Jose Berrios on Wednesday and righty Michael Pineda on Thursday, if a third game is necessary. The Astros haven’t announced a Game 2 starter, righty Jose Urquidy and lefty Framber Valdez are the candidates, and reportedly will go with righthander Lance McCullers Jr. in Game 3, if necessary.
Baldelli and his coaching staff planned to spend time getting familiar with the Astros on Monday before the Twins hold a workout at Target Field.
“We were not focused necessarily on who we might be playing,” Baldelli said. ” … we were getting ready for a number of different opponents. We didn’t know it was the Astros until very late in the game. We’re going to start sitting down and spending some time on the Astros, but today’s day was focused on getting to this point where we could say that we were able to win the division and then we’ll get ready for the next opponent. That’s really where we are at. We might even take another hour or so and maybe have a little party.”
Perhaps, they can quietly raise a glass to having been fortunate enough to get the cheating ‘Stros as their first opponent.