Other than the coronavirus, it would be fair to say the Houston Astros were public enemy No. 1 heading into the 2020 baseball season following their sign-stealing scandal en route to winning the 2017 World Series.
But Minnesota Twins right-hander Kenta Maeda, a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers team that lost in seven games to the Astros that year, said that won’t provide any extra motivation when he takes the mound Tuesday afternoon against the Astros in Game 1 of their best-of-three American League wild-card series in Minneapolis.
“Not really,” said Maeda, who made four relief appearances in the 2017 World Series and picked up a hold in a 3-1 victory in Game 6. “I try not to let anything affect what’s going on right now. I’m no longer with the Dodgers. I’m a Twin. I think my main focus right now is to go out there and pitch well to contribute to our team win.”
Maeda, obtained by the Twins in a February trade that sent hard-throwing reliever Brusdar Graterol to the Dodgers, is in the conversation for the American League Cy Young Award for third-seeded Minnesota (36-24). He led the major leagues in WHIP (0.75) while compiling a 6-1 record and a 2.70 ERA. He allowed five hits and one run — a homer by Jose Altuve — in 5 2/3 innings of relief in the 2017 World Series.
Right-hander Zack Greinke (3-3, 4.03 ERA), no stranger to Minneapolis from his days with the Kansas City Royals, will start the opener for sixth-seeded Houston. The Astros (29-31) finished in second place in the American League West, seven games behind the Oakland A’s.
Greinke is 5-9 with a 4.64 ERA in 24 career appearances (20 starts) against the Twins, including 1-4 with a 5.14 ERA in seven starts at Target Field. He even made six appearances, including four starts, at the old Metrodome, going 1-2 with a 4.05 ERA.
His last start against the Twins came in 2017 with the Arizona Diamondbacks, when he allowed five runs (four earned) on seven hits over four innings in a 5-0 loss.
“Greinke is as tough as they come,” Minnesota manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Tremendously talented guy. Can do some really funny things with the baseball and play tricks on people in ways you normally don’t see on a major league baseball field.”
The Twins, who have lost a major-league-record 16 consecutive postseason games dating to 2004, claimed their second consecutive AL Central title thanks to their strong home form.
Minnesota finished a major-league-best 24-7 at home, producing a 2.89 ERA and averaging 4.5 runs per game in those contests.
The Astros, who lost in seven games to the Washington Nationals in last year’s World Series, had just a 9-23 road record while compiling a 5.66 ERA and averaging 4.6 runs.
Houston, despite returning the main core of its 2017 championship squad, including second baseman Altuve, shortstop Carlos Correa, center fielder George Springer and third baseman Alex Bregman, also averaged just 3.8 runs overall during a 10-17 September.
“Regular-season games and playoff games bring a different intensity,” Correa said. “I think we have to step up. I think we’re going to play great baseball. I think we’re going to be fine.”
Manager Dusty Baker, who took over on Jan. 29 for A.J. Hinch, who was fired for his part in the sign-stealing scandal, made major league history by becoming the first person to lead five different teams to the postseason. Houston reached the postseason even though staff ace Justin Verlander pitched only one game before he sustained a season-ending arm injury and a young pitching staff rolled up 476 days on the injured list.
The two teams held workouts Monday afternoon at drizzly Target Field. Minnesota center fielder Byron Buxton, who hasn’t played since leaving the Friday game against Cincinnati after getting hit in the helmet by a 92 mph Lucas Sims fastball, and third baseman Josh Donaldson, who exited earlier in that contest with a calf cramp, took part in both hitting and fielding drills.
Buxton experienced mild concussion symptoms on Saturday.
Baldelli wouldn’t tip his hand on whether either player would be in the lineup on Tuesday.
“It was a relatively good day for both guys, but we’re going to hold off before we move forward and put anything in stone,” Baldelli said Monday.
Astros catcher Martin Maldonado, who said he felt something behind his knee while lunging for a throw in Friday’s game with Texas, told reporters he was good to go and expects to start Tuesday. Baker said reliever Josh James (undisclosed) also would be available.
–Field Level Media