MINNEAPOLIS — They’ve forever asked for the playoff ace in Minnesota and it appears he’s finally arrived. The rock-steady, superstar position player who can single-handedly carry a team on his back, he’s here, too.
Playing their highest-stakes game of the season on Sunday night, two of the biggest recent acquisitions in Minnesota Twins history delivered as envisioned. Brought in specifically to handle moments like these, Pablo López and Carlos Correa flourished and the Twins evened their American League Division Series with the Houston Astros at a game apiece with a 6-2 victory in front of 43,017 at Minute Maid Park.
Correa shined defensively, reached base four times, driving in three runs, and López produced one of the top pitching efforts in Twins playoff history. López became only the third Twins pitcher in postseason history to pitch seven scoreless innings, striking out seven while scattering six hits and one walk.
The series resumes Tuesday afternoon with Sonny Gray on the mound in Game 3.
“What you saw today was a true ace,” said Correa. “(López) cements himself with this start as one of the best pitchers in the game, there’s no doubt about that. On the biggest stage, the biggest spot, with the most pressure that anybody could have, he showed up, and he showed up big time against a great lineup. It was one of the most impressive outings I’ve ever seen.”
López was just as impressed by Correa. After first identifying the “unbelievable” defensive plays and big hits, López suggested Correa makes an equally big impact in areas that don’t show up on highlight reels.
Throughout the day, players raved how Correa deked José Abreu late in Saturday’s loss by throwing up his hands as if to suggest no throw from Ryan Jeffers would come to second base after a wild pitch, only for the catcher and shortstop to deliver a perfect throw and tag.
“He wants the big moments to make something happen,” López said. “He can really hype up a team. A lot of guys in our clubhouse maybe don’t have the most playoff experience or … big moments experience. But he’s such an incredible source of that kind of information, and he keeps you accountable, he keeps you honest, and he keeps you on the attack.”
Sunday’s game is exactly the type of moment the Twins’ front office envisioned when they acquired both players in January.
Though it required his contracts in San Francisco and with the New York Mets imploding over concerns about his surgically-repaired ankle, the Twins never hesitated to bring back Correa on the largest contract in franchise history. Impressed with how he handled himself during their one-year trial run in 2022, the Twins pursued Correa throughout the winter, offering him a 10-year deal worth $285 million before he accepted San Francisco’s $350 million offer.
After both the Giants and Mets reneged on their original offer when Correa didn’t pass a physical, the Twins pursed him with the same vigor as before. They knew his baseball acumen, the defense he plays, the clutch hits he provides and the steady heartbeat Correa maintains and what it might mean in October.
Though they didn’t possess the same level of intel on López, the Twins suspected he too was the kind of player who could not only help them snap their 18-game playoff losing streak but also one who could push them deeper into October than they’d been in two decades.
They were so sure they parted with now two-time batting champion Luis Arraez to acquire López.
Twins analysts thought the development of a new pitch, a sweeper/slider, would enhance the right-hander’s repertoire. The day they locked López up to a four-year, $73.5-million extension in April, Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said López projected to have a top-15 arsenal among major-league pitchers.
Months later, the talented duo proved the Twins’ decision-makers correct yet again.
Following Saturday’s loss, the Twins felt as if they’d let a key opportunity get away. Justin Verlander wobbled in the game’s first three innings and provided them with numerous chances, yet they never took advantage, falling 6-4 in Game 1.
Though a Game 2 loss wouldn’t be the end of the world, it would put the Twins in a position where they’d need to fight for their lives for the rest of the series. But when they arrived at the park on Sunday, López and Correa made it clear they were there to do the heavy lifting.
“Pablo was absolutely the guy who wanted the ball tonight and everyone could feel that,” Falvey said. “It wasn’t a question of ‘Is there any fear or concern or otherwise?’ He walked into the ballpark and it was like, ‘He looks just like Pablo every day.’ … I watched guys like Royce (Lewis) and (Edouard Julien) and others that are in their first exposure where it’s loud and that’s the defending world champs. You’ve got to find a way. I think those guys, every time they’re nervous or otherwise, they look to (Correa and López). They looked to guys who have been around this before that can find a way to help them through it. That allows us to slow the game down and just play.”
— MLB (@MLB) October 9, 2023
Falvey interacted with López early Sunday and immediately knew the Twins were in good hands. The two discussed the potential for the roof of Minute Maid Park staying closed despite 73-degree temperatures at first pitch and what the difference in noise might mean.
Without flinching, López said he didn’t mind, he’d simply feed off the atmosphere.
“It kind of reminded me of Gerrit Cole in 2019,” Correa said. “It felt like hitters had no chance.”
There were many parts of López’s effort that stood out.
He handled Yordan Alvarez, who’s homered three times in the first two games, with aplomb, striking him out twice and retiring him on a fly ball. López also attacked Houston hitters early, throwing 21 of 27 first-pitch strikes and rarely finding himself in three-ball counts against an October-experienced lineup.
Unlike his counterpart, López pitched with efficiency, which allowed him to stick around later. His pitch count by innings: 12, 14, 15, 22, 13, 12 and 17.
“He was completely locked in,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “Anyone watching can see the stuff is exceptional. But I think he had tremendous feel for his pitches. He was able to get through the first few innings with a relatively low pitch count, which gives you … (you) want to let him keep going.”
But perhaps what stood out most is how López turned back the Astros and their attempts to manufacture energy at each and every turn.
From the in-stadium deejay imploring them to make noise to Jeremy Peña dancing at second base after a fifth-inning double to the strange train conductor in overalls calling for more audience participation, the Astros did everything they could to rattle the Twins.
López never allowed it.
After Jose Altuve bunted for a single in the first inning with the Twins up 1-0, López struck out Alex Bregman and retired Alvarez and Tucker on flyouts. Following Peña’s broken-bat leadoff single in the third, López induced a double play off Martín Maldonado’s bat on a 3-2 pitch with the lineup about to turn over. There was a critical strikeout of Chas McCormick to end a fourth-inning rally with runners on the corner.
Yet López’s biggest moment arrived in the fifth after Peña doubled and danced wildly at second. First, López retired Maldonado on a comebacker. Then Altuve, who blasted the first pitch of Saturday’s loss from Bailey Ober into orbit, popped out to second. López later escaped the jam with a strikeout of Bregman.
He followed by retiring six of the last seven batters he faced.
“He’s so nasty,” said closer Jhoan Duran, who pitched a scoreless ninth. “That’s the best start I’ve seen (from) him. … He knows the team needed this win.”
Correa did, too, and he didn’t hesitate to put the Twins on his back early.
Facing a tough lefty in Framber Valdez, Houston’s best starting pitcher, Correa helped the Twins break through the way they couldn’t until it was too late Saturday. Moved to the cleanup spot after batting sixth in the opener, Correa pounced on the opportunity, and a hanging 1-1 curveball from Valdez, doubling just out of the reach of Alvarez for a two-out, RBI double that scored Jorge Polanco, who earlier reached on a one-out walk.
“Carlos had a great night at the plate,” said third baseman Kyle Farmer. “He kind of set the tone for us.”
An inning later, the Twins increased the lead to three runs by sticking to a game plan that advised patience against Valdez. Willi Castro took two pitches low and fouled off a 2-2 changeup before singling to center to start the inning. Looking for a sinker up from a pitcher who traditionally throws down in the zone, Farmer found what he wanted on the first pitch and belted it off the Lexus sign above the left-field bleachers for a two-run homer.
Though the Twins drove his pitch count up quickly, Valdez settled down and retired eight of nine batters, refusing to let his opponents pull away.
Yet once again, Correa provided the lift the Twins desperately needed during a fifth-inning rally.
With two in scoring position and one out after a Polanco sacrifice bunt, Lewis drew a walk to load the bases for Correa, who appeared in three World Series with the Astros and two ALCS.
Looking specifically for a sinker, Correa went below the zone and lined one into center for a two-run single and a 5-0 lead. Not wanting to hit into a double play after he led the majors with 30 during the regular season, the two-time All-Star said he’d prepared for the moment in pregame batting practice.
“I hit a lot of sinkers before the game,” Correa said. “I was getting ready for (Valdez). I know what he’s trying to do when he’s got a double-play situation. I knew (Maldonado) was going to go sinker, changeup, and I was ready to elevate it. I was going to swing under it even if I missed under. I didn’t want to hit a ground ball in that scenario. I hit for too many double plays in the regular season.”
— MLB (@MLB) October 9, 2023
Needing as much distance between the defending World Series champs as they could muster, Correa provided another boost by keying a run-scoring rally in the seventh inning. Lewis singled and raced to third when Correa doubled. After Ryan Jeffers was hit by a pitch to load the bases, Julien made it 6-0 with a pinch-hit single to right.
Correa, who also walked in the third inning, is now 8-for-15 with three doubles and the free pass in four postseason games.
“He’s so clutch in the postseason,” first baseman Donavan Solano, said. “Playoffs, I feel like I see another Carlos. I think he’s prepared for these moments. It inspires us like we can do something special this year, something we’ll remember our whole lives.”
As if his previous efforts weren’t enough, Correa offered one more big moment in the bottom of the ninth inning. With the lead trimmed to four runs and the Astros desperate for an opening, Correa dove to right with two outs to steal a hit from Peña.
Several times this October, Correa recalled a conversation he had with his wife Daniella a year ago about wanting to never miss the playoffs again. He said watching them from his couch provided the necessary desire to return to the playoffs on an annual basis.
Similar to López, Correa craves the moment, the pressure.
Fortunately for the Twins, they’re both demonstrating that desire and want.
“It worked as motivation for me to, one, never miss it again and, two, be in the spotlight once again and be able to deliver for my team and feel that passion and love that I feel for this game and for winning,” Correa said. “I missed it so much when I was at home just watching, and this year I’m embracing the role, and we’re in the playoffs, and I’m trying to get the team to the promised land, and we’re going to keep working on that.”
(Photo of Carlos Correa hitting a two-run single in the fifth inning: Erik Williams / USA Today)