Disciplined Astros hitters prepare for series finale vs. Twins (Jul 16, 2017)
HOUSTON — Even in defeat, the Houston Astros continued their season-long trend of avoiding strikeouts, a stunning turnaround that has helped fuel their incredible success heading into Sunday’s series finale against the Minnesota Twins.
Despite falling 4-2 to the Twins on Saturday night, the Astros (61-30) struck out just four times against four Twins pitchers. Houston entered play with the lowest strikeout rate in the majors, whiffing in only 17.2 percent of its plate appearances.
That marks a significant departure from recent years. The Astros were 27th last season in strikeout rate (23.4 percent), 29th in 2015 (22.9 percent) and 2014 (23.8 percent), and 30th in 2013 when they struck out in 25.5 percent of their plate appearances while recording 100-plus losses for a third consecutive season.
“The hitters obviously have made some adjustments and we’ve also added some key additions to the roster over the years,” Astros manager A.J Hinch said. “We’re a little bit more quality of at-bat focused, a little more contact oriented, but it hasn’t impacted our power.
“I think our guys that have been here … have grown up. Sometimes we’ve underestimated some of the development that happens at the big league level of some very notable players.
“Watching it happen over guys getting into their second year, their third year, their fourth year and some in their fifth year have become better. That comes with maturity, that comes with strike zone judgment. They’ve worked at it. There’s been a real attention to good at-bats and quality plate appearances.”
Astros right-hander Mike Fiers (5-4, 3.84 ERA) will look to capitalize on that improved plate discipline in the rubber match against the Twins. Fiers is 4-1 with a 3.14 ERA in eight career appearances (seven starts) against Minnesota, including a 7-2 road victory on May 30.
Right-hander Kyle Gibson (5-7, 6.31) will take the mound for the Twins (46-44), who snapped a seven-game series skid to the Astros. Gibson is 3-0 with a 1.93 ERA in four career starts against the Astros, against whom he last faced on Aug. 28, 2015, at Target Field.
The Twins welcomed back first baseman Joe Mauer to their lineup in the middle game of the three-game series. Mauer had missed six games with a lower back strain and returned in time to fill the roster void left by center fielder Byron Buxton going on the 10-day disabled list with a left groin strain.
Despite not swinging a bat over the All-Star Game break, Mauer needed just one batting practice to get himself ready for reinstatement. He finished 1-for-5 with three strikeouts on Saturday night.
“Joe’s had a really nice first half if you ask me about his competitiveness, consistency,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “Obviously, we all know he’s made a huge difference on the defensive side of the game. It’s just an experienced bat that knows how to slow the game down and gives you a good chance.
“I always feel good when Joe’s up there trying to get something started, get a big hit, extend an inning. He just takes the best and most consistent at-bats of anybody on our squad.”