Houston leads the series 1-0

Astros get a late rally to take ALWC Game 1 from Twins

Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

With a fresh slate in front of them, the Astros entered Target Field on Tuesday needing thirteen wins to get their second World Series win in franchise history. First, they needed to take two of three in the ALWC (American League Wild Card) round against the Twins. As with most playoff series openers, it shaped up to be a fierce pitching matchup. Here is a rundown of the game:

Final Score: Astros 4, Twins 1.

Series: HOU leads 1-0.

Winning Pitcher: Framber Valdez.

Losing Pitcher: Sergio Romo.

Greinke allows a run then gets the early hook

After stranding Michael Brantley on second base after a double in the top of the inning, the Twins put early pressure on Zack Greinke in the bottom of the first. They took advantage of Greinke struggling to find the zone, getting a one-out single, then back-to-back walks to load the bases. With some stellar defense behind him, though, he would escape unscathed.

After loading the bases in the first, Greinke retired the next seven in a row, not allowing a baserunner until two outs into the third when he would walk Max Kepler. That proved costly, as Nelson Cruz would drive him in on a long RBI-double, putting the Twins ahead 1-0. He would get the next batter out, then tossed a 1-2-3 fourth, but would get the early hook with his pitch count rising and the top of Minnesota's order coming back around in the fifth. Greinke's final line: 4.0 IP, 2 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 1 K, 0 HR, 79 P.

Valdez takes over then the Astros tie it up

One reason they were quick to take Greinke out early is that they were willing to use Framber Valdez, who took over in the bottom of the fifth. He would struggle against his first two batters, walking both before sitting down the next three to keep it a one-run game heading to the sixth.

The Twins also dipped into their bullpen starting in the top of the sixth, with another scoreless inning by Houston's bats. The Astros would tie the game and get on the board in the top of the seventh, getting back-to-back two-out singles by Josh Reddick and Martin Maldonado to set up an RBI-single by George Springer, before Maldonado would run into the third out trying to advance to third.

Astros blow it open in the ninth and take Game 1

The game remained tied 1-1 into the ninth with Minnesota going inning-by-inning with relievers while Valdez was dealing for Houston. In the top of the ninth, the Astros started the inning with back-to-back singles to threaten to go ahead. After outs in the air by the next two batters, an error by the Twins loaded the bases instead of recording the third out, keeping Houston alive and bringing Jose Altuve to the plate.

Altuve would get the go-ahead RBI, working a walk to put the Astros in front 2-1 for their first lead of the game. That brought Michael Brantley to the plate, still with the bases loaded, and would drive in two of them with a two-RBI single to push the lead to 4-1.

Houston would ride the hot hand into the bottom of the ninth, sticking with Framber Valdez to bring it home. He would maintain the lead and get the win, erasing two one-out singles to finish the Houston victory, putting them a win away from advancing to the ALDS.

Up Next: Game two of this best-of-three will start an hour earlier on Wednesday, with a 12:08 PM Central start. With Framber Valdez being used in Game 1, the Astros are expected to start Jose Urquidy in Game 2, while the Twins will send Jose Berrios to the mound.

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Here's what the data tells us about Bregman. Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Alex Bregman had a rough season in 2020 by his standards. He slashed .242/.350/.451 in 42 regular season games. His regular season included a trip to the 10-day IL for a hamstring strain he suffered in mid-August. His surface-level struggles continued in the postseason, where he slashed .220/.316/.300 in 13 games. However, that postseason sample size does include a tough luck game against the Tampa Bay Rays where he went 0-for-5 with five hard hit balls.

All-in-all, 2020 felt like a lost season for Bregman. He never really got going. He got off to a slow start, but he's always been a slow starter. Once he started to pick it up, he strained his hamstring, and he played poorly after returning from the hamstring strain. Then, he started to turn his batted ball quality around in the playoffs, but he hit into a lot of tough luck outs.

Hard Hit % - 33.6%

Barrel % - 3.9%

K% - 14.4%

BB% - 13.3%

Chase % - 18.1%

Bregman comes from the Michael Brantley school of hitters. He has elite plate discipline and elite bat-to-ball skills. This makes Bregman a fairly consistent hitter. That may sound odd considering his 2020 "struggles" but even an extended period of poor performance for him resulted in a .801 OPS and a 122 wRC+. If his valleys are still 22% better than the league average hitter, then that's a pretty reliable producer.

There aren't any alarming trends in Bregman's statistics. Yes, his K% was slightly up, his BB% is slightly down, but it isn't a massive difference in either category. His Chase % was up, but again, 18.1% is elite discipline. The biggest drop was in his Hard Hit%, where he fell from 38% to 33.6%. Even so, his average exit velocity only dropped .4 MPH, so there's not really a catastrophic trend here.

His .254 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) was low, but he's never put up really high BABIP numbers. In fact, his BABIP has gotten worse every year of his career, from .317 to .311 to .289 to .281 to .254. While his BABIP will likely spike back up next year, it isn't enough to be the difference between the 2019 and 2020 versions of himself. His xBA and xSLG weren't out of whack either. His .256 xBA isn't much better than his .240 AVG, and his .400 xSLG is actually worse than his .451 SLG.

Bregman is as forthcoming with his hitting mechanics, approach, and mental cues as any big leaguer out there. Here is what he had to say about his swing this year. This was a Zoom press conference with the media following the Astros game on September 25th against the Rangers.

Bregman says he wants to hit balls in the air to the pull side and on a line to the opposite field, but in reality, he was hitting flares to the opposite field and hitting them on the ground to the pull side.

The data mostly backs up that claim. In 2019, on balls hit to the pull side, Bregman had an average exit velocity of 90.7 MPH at an average launch angle of 16°, a 40% Hard Hit %, and a 16% HR%. Since Bregman has elite bat-to-ball skills, most of those metrics didn't change. In 2020, his average exit velocity was 90.6, essentially the same as 2019. His Hard Hit % was 42%, a touch better than in 2019. However, his average launch angle dipped from 16° to 11°, which contributed to his HR% dropping all the way to 9%. Bregman hit 47% of his pull side swings on the ground. In 2019, that number was 40%. He absolutely had less production to the pull side in 2020.

The data gets a little hazier going the opposite way when comparing 2019 to 2020, as Bregman actually performed slightly better to the opposite field in 2020 than 2019, but he also only had 20 batted balls to the opposite field all season. Considering the small sample size, it isn't worth diving too deep into the data.

He's right that most of the balls he hit that way were flares. He had an average exit velocity of 83.4 MPH with an average launch angle of 32°, but that's about the same as what he did in 2019. A lot of the statistical drop off comes from balls that were backspun rockets to the pull side in 2019 becoming top spinners or roll overs in 2020.

Bregman also performed horribly against breaking balls in 2020. He batted .150 with a .250 SLG against them in 2020. He had an 84 MPH Average Exit Velocity against them and whiffed 26.5% of the time against them.

It was a far cry from 2019, when he hit .265 with a .588 SLG, 87 MPH average exit velo, and whiffed 18% of the time.

Those numbers lend credence to his statement on his mechanics. It's tough for a hitter to have adjustability against breaking balls if he's blowing out his front side and pulling off of the baseball.

Bregman will spend the offseason working on these mechanical fixes and getting back to the hitter he used to be. If he's consistently hitting the ball in the air to the pull side next year, and he's performing better against breaking balls, then he should be right back in the mix for AL MVP.

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