New-look Pablo López returns to Houston, returns to form as Twins top Astros

HOUSTON — After Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Pablo López shaved off much of his beard, Ryan Jeffers said López resembled one of the twin assassins from “Breaking Bad.” Rocco Baldelli described his ace pitcher as looking meaner during Friday’s pregame routine.

Whatever it was, it worked.

Admitting he needed to make a change after three consecutive rough starts, López shaved off more than half of his beard before Friday night’s start. Working with an outstanding pitch mix, including an exploding fastball, López then trimmed nearly half a run off his earned-run average, lowering it from 5.25 to 4.84.

Returning to the scene of his dominant postseason outing in October, López was equally as sharp in dismissing the Houston Astros. López struck out seven and allowed only one run in seven innings as the Twins won for the eighth time in 10 games, dispatching Houston 6-1 in front of 36,903 at Minute Maid Park. Trevor Larnach and Carlos Santana both homered and Carlos Correa doubled in a run as the Twins improved to 32-25.

“(I’m) not superstitious, just a little stitious,” López said. “Sometimes we think it has to be something mechanics, something pitching. What if it was something different? I had to take a chance. … The only thing I did was trying not to overdo it. I was very resilient, and I had to tell myself to just be strong, do not give in to the temptation of throwing your routine away because you’re looking for a change.”

His previous three starts left López befuddled.

Though his stuff was strong, his offspeed pitches, including the sweeper, were getting punished because he left too many offerings in the zone. In those starts against the New York Yankees, Washington Nationals and Texas Rangers, López surrendered 16 earned runs, 25 hits and five home runs in 16 innings pitched, taking a loss in all three.

López’s underlying metrics suggested his problems were overblown, his 3.80 Fielding Independent Pitching registering well below his ERA. Still, López struggled in his first 11 turns to find the consistency that made him into the team’s best frontline starter in more than a decade.

Not Friday.

Working with a lively fastball, a good changeup and curve, and an improving sweeper, López overpowered Houston hitters all night.

“He looked great,” catcher Ryan Jeffers said. “I told him (in the bullpen), that’s the best I’ve seen you since last year. He looked really good. It was awesome. I haven’t caught him in a little while, but the last outings, they haven’t been crisp. He hasn’t had feel. So there were a couple of things he was working on this week. I couldn’t tell you what they were, but it was some over-the-rubber type stuff, some mechanical things. I just tried to pump him up the whole day, keep telling him how good he is. He really is an ace. He knows that.”

López showed how good he could be in the fourth inning with his team holding a slim lead. Whereas he faltered in previous outings with traffic on the bases, this time he excelled. Alex Bregman led the fourth inning off with a solo homer off the foul pole to cut the Twins’ advantage to 2-1. Jon Singleton followed with a one-out single and López walked Mauricio Dubón, which prompted a mound visit from pitching coach Pete Maki.

But López quickly rebounded with a strikeout of Chas McCormick and an inning-ending groundout by Yainer Diaz. From there, López retired nine of the last 10 hitters he faced. Needing only 93 pitches to complete seven innings, López generated 17 swings-and-misses and limited Houston to six hits and a walk.

“A lot of people said he looked a lot meaner,” Baldelli said. “I don’t know if he pitched meaner, but he pitched great. He had a pretty good changeup, he attacked with his fastball really well, and I think he threw enough good offspeed pitches to get what he was looking for. Especially the fastballs up in the zone were so good, and that’s where the effectiveness really comes in. That’s what really good execution looks like.”

The team’s offense demonstrated what a good approach looks like.

Following an aggressive start against Ronel Blanco, Twins hitters showed patience starting in the third inning. Willi Castro opened the inning with a six-pitch at-bat resulting in a triple before Jose Miranda worked an 11-pitch walk. Correa then doubled in a run to give the Twins a one-run lead and Alex Kirilloff’s sac fly made it a 2-0 game.

The lengthy at-bats led to a 32-pitch frame for Blanco, who threw 28 pitches in his first two innings. From there, the Twins seemed to wear Blanco down. Castro drew a nine-pitch walk to open the fifth inning. One out later, Larnach worked the count full before ripping a slider out to right on the ninth pitch he’d seen to put the Twins in front by three runs.

After he was hit by a pitch to start the sixth inning, Max Kepler raced to third on Jeffers’ bloop double to right and scored with a good read on the contact play on Manny Margot’s RBI groundout. Santana homered to start the eighth inning, which allowed the Twins to pull López after seven frames and go to the bullpen.

“That’s a good team approach up and down the lineup,” Baldelli said. “We did a nice job. … Really everyone in our lineup went out there with a good plan. (Blanco) didn’t really have many quick stretches. He had to work throughout the game and we got him out of there.”

Baldelli: Alcalá earning bigger role

Jorge Alcalá has entered the high-leverage group chat.

While Baldelli acknowledged a plan to use Alcalá for multiple innings if needed, Baldelli suggested Friday that Alcalá could see more time in critical game situations. Baldelli has been impressed by the recent performance of Alcalá, whose fastball has averaged 98 mph or better since rejoining the club. Alcalá’s fastball averaged 99.1 mph in a dominant inning against the heart of Kansas City’s order Thursday.

During the homestand, Alcalá — acquired from the Astros in the July 2018 trade for Ryan Pressly — struck out seven and walked one in four scoreless innings.

“He’s working his way into the leverage mix,” Baldelli said. “What he was throwing (Thursday) was — and I think the outing before, too — that was not what we had seen from him previously. It’s not like the hitters are telling us something different. The hitters are agreeing that it’s good.”

Back in April, Alcalá made two appearances in which his fastball averaged under 95 after earlier averaging 97.5 mph. Thursday, he averaged 99.6 mph and posed after striking out Bobby Witt Jr. to end a nasty inning.

Alcalá said he simply feels good and hasn’t made any radical changes.

“I feel great right now,” Alcalá said through an interpreter. “I feel like I’m throwing better than when I started back in 2019. … I’m very grateful to the team for trusting me in those types of situations, but I keep the same, putting in the work, being focused so that whenever I get called for those moments I’m ready.”

Perhaps, however, the improvement can be attributed to a significant life change. Alcalá became a father for the first time in April to a baby girl. The normally stoic pitcher smiled when asked about his child.

“Very happy,” Alcalá said. “She’s also motivation for me every day here.”

(Photo of Pablo López: David J. Phillip / Associated Press)

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