HOUSTON (AP) — Justin Verlander was wearing a New York Mets uniform when the season began.
But on Saturday night, he was right back where he’s been so many times before, on the mound for the Houston Astros helping them to another playoff win.
Verlander pitched six shutout innings, Yordan Alvarez homered twice and the Astros held on for a 6-4 victory over the Minnesota Twins in their AL Division Series opener.
Jose Altuve hit a leadoff home run and Alvarez had three RBIs as the defending World Series champions won their 2023 playoff debut to earn their 10th straight victory in Game 1 of a Division Series.
Verlander first joined the Astros in August 2017 and won his second World Series title with the team last year. He signed with the Mets in the offseason, then returned to Houston in a July trade after a very brief stint in the Big Apple.
“It’s been a whirlwind of a year, season for me,” Verlander said. “To find myself back here in Houston and pitching in the playoffs is not something I foresaw, but happy to be here, happy to help contribute, and happy to be in the playoffs.”
The 40-year-old Verlander allowed four hits and walked three with six strikeouts to get his 17th win in 35 postseason starts. It was his 10th playoff win with the Astros, the most in franchise history.
“He gave us all he had like he usually does, and he gave us quality,” manager Dusty Baker said. “Even when he doesn’t have his great stuff, he still manages to get people out.”
Especially against the Twins. Since 2018, Verlander is 6-1 in seven starts versus Minnesota and has a 23-inning scoreless streak.
Former Astros star Carlos Correa had two hits for the Twins, who continued to struggle at the plate with runners in scoring position. They went 1 for 12 after going 1 for 10 in the Wild Card Series against Toronto.
“We had a lot of traffic out there,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “We’re one good swing or even one well-placed swing away from getting some real action going, putting some runs up, and we just didn’t get that.”
Verlander settled in after a shaky start and the Astros built a 5-0 lead through six innings with big swings from Altuve and Alvarez.
Héctor Neris took over for Verlander to start the seventh. With two outs, Jorge Polanco hit a soaring three-run homer to right field. Two pitches later, rookie Royce Lewis launched his third homer in three playoff games to make it 5-4.
In the bottom half, lefty Caleb Thielbar entered to face Alvarez with one out. The slugger became the first left-handed hitter to homer off Thielbar this season when he smacked an off-speed pitch off the foul pole in right to give Houston an insurance run.
“When I go up there, try not to think about the situation, try not to think about the noise,” Alvarez said in Spanish through a translator. “Just say to myself, ‘I’m the only one that can get the job done at this moment.’”
Thielbar called Alvarez a “great hitter.”
“He doesn’t really have a weakness to either hand,” he said. “You want to be the guy who comes in and faces him in a big spot. It just wasn’t meant to be today.”
Bryan Abreu got four outs for the Astros, striking out three, and Ryan Pressly fanned two in a scoreless ninth for the save. He struck out Lewis to end it.
The best-of-five series continues Sunday night in Houston, with Framber Valdez on the mound for the AL West champion Astros against Pablo López.
Altuve pounced on Bailey Ober’s first pitch for his first career leadoff homer in the playoffs.
“It was really important,” Altuve said. “When we score first we are a better team.”
Alvarez connected off Ober on a two-run shot in the third to make it 3-0.
Altuve, who was 0 for 23 to open the playoffs last season, has 24 career postseason homers, which ranks second in major league history to Manny Ramirez (29). Saturday was Altuve’s eighth home run in the first inning of a playoff game, the most in MLB history.
Ober allowed four hits and three runs over three innings in his playoff debut for the AL Central champion Twins, who completed a two-game sweep of Toronto in the wild-card round to win a playoff series for the first time in 21 years.
The Twins had excellent chances early but were unable to push across any runs against Verlander.
“He’s a Hall of Fame pitcher for a reason,” Correa said. “Even though he doesn’t have his good stuff, he knows how to get people out. He got out of some key spots in the first three innings and they came out with the win because he figured it out and then he cruised through the last two or three.”
José Abreu’s RBI single made it 4-0 in the fifth. Chas McCormick singled with two outs to send another run home.
Twins: Baldelli said Lewis wasn’t quite ready to play the field, as the DH continues to recover from a hamstring injury. Baldelli added that Lewis could return to the field at some point during this series.
Astros: Relief pitcher Kendall Graveman was left off the ALDS roster because of discomfort in his right shoulder. He said he’s feeling better and hopes to be available if the Astros advance.
HOME RUN LEWIS
Lewis, the first overall pick in the 2017 draft, became the second player and first rookie in MLB history with at least three home runs in his first three career playoff games. His three home runs are tied for the second-most in a single postseason in franchise history, trailing only Kirby Puckett, who had four in 1991.
“Whether it’s postseason or not, to me it’s the same game,” Lewis said. “Obviously, the stage is brighter and the lights are a little brighter but I tell you what, it’s a lot more fun, too.”
López (11-8, 3.66 ERA) won Game 1 of the Wild Card Series, allowing one run in 5 2/3 innings.
Valdez (12-11, 3.45), who threw a no-hitter against Cleveland in August, was 2-2 with a 3.86 ERA in his last five regular-season starts.
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