MINNEAPOLIS — Martin Perez came to Minnesota for a fresh start, so what better time than to try a new pitch?
With a cut fastball successfully added to his arsenal, following a brief stay in the bullpen, Perez has produced another solid starter for the first-place Twins.
Perez pitched eight scoreless innings in his longest start in nearly two years, and Jonathan Schoop hit a towering two-run homer off Houston starter Collin McHugh to help the Twins beat the Astros 6-2 on Wednesday night.
The 28-year-old left-hander, who spent his first seven major league seasons with Texas and stumbled in 2018 to a career-worst 6.22 ERA, has thrown the cutter more than any other pitch so far in 2019. Perez’s agent, he said, had encouraged him to use it for years.
“New year, new team. I told him, `I think you’re right, so let’s try something different,” Perez said.
Perez (4-0) allowed only four hits and two walks while striking out seven, improving to 3-0 with a 2.08 ERA over 26 innings in his first four starts with his new team. The early schedule with extra off days shortened the rotation and prompted the Twins to put Perez in a long relief role to start, an assignment he gracefully accepted, and the transition has been flawless .
“It takes a unique guy to be open to doing things like that,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “He’s had an interesting first month of the season, but he’s handled it great and he’s throwing the ball as well as we’ve seen him throw it right now.”
The Astros said as much, too.
“Really good cutter. He didn’t have that in years before when we faced him. It seems like he just came out with that,” said Jose Altuve, who had two hits. “He looked 100 percent different.”
Perez has been throwing harder, too. The Twins, through their more analytics-driven approach to pitching performance and strategy overseen by chief baseball officer Derek Falvey, identified him as a free agent who had the makeup and mechanics to bounce back. So they signed him to a one-year, $4 million contract with a club option for 2020, a low-risk move that has already paid off. Perez last completed eight innings on Aug. 9, 2017, for the Rangers.
“I believe in myself, man,” Perez said. “Trust.”
After a walk by George Springer and a single by Altuve to start the game, Perez appeared to be in trouble when Alex Bregman connected on a 2-1 cutter. The fly ball held up at the warning track, though, and Carlos Correa grounded into a double play to end the inning. Bregman homered on Tuesday night, when the Astros won 11-0, and had gone deep five times in his last eight games at Target Field.
McHugh (3-3) hit Mitch Garver with a pitch to start the third, and Schoop made him pay with his drive into the third deck above left field that was estimated at 465 feet. McHugh finished six innings, with five hits, four runs and one walk allowed while striking out two, and the Twins were just as productive against him with their non-powerful at-bats in deftly moving runners over and in. Byron Buxton followed with a single and a stolen base, before coming home on a soft infield single by Jorge Polanco, who had two hits.
“This team’s going to hit home runs, but if you can do that, we’re going to win a lot of games,” Schoop said.
The Astros sent out an all-right-handed lineup against Perez, with Aledmys Diaz getting his first start in left field. Diaz and Tyler White drove in runs with singles in the ninth against Trevor Hildenberger.
“Sometimes you have to tip the hat to the other guy,” Altuve said, “and Martin threw the ball really, really good.”
Ex-Twins catcher Joe Mauer attended the game, his first appearance as a former player. He spent a couple of innings in the ESPN broadcast booth at the request of analyst Rick Sutcliffe. Mauer has kept busy at home, where he and his wife have twin 5-year-old daughters and a son who was born two days after his retirement news conference in November.
“Hit the ground running,” Mauer said. “It’s been great.”
Astros: RHP Josh James, who worked a scoreless but shaky inning in relief while dealing with some back stiffness, was not available, Hinch said. He’ll need a fresh bullpen this weekend. The Astros can add a 26th man for their two-game series in Mexico against the Los Angeles Angels, but the extra must be a position player.
Twins: Backup catcher/infielder Willians Astudillo (strained left hamstring) will join the team on the upcoming six-game road trip, but manager Rocco Baldelli wouldn’t guarantee he’d be cleared to play when he’s eligible to come off the injured list in a week.
Astros: RHP Brad Peacock (2-1, 3.67 ERA) will take the mound for the Thursday matinee. He held Cleveland to one run on four hits and one walk in six innings while striking out seven in his previous start.
Twins: RHP Jose Berrios (4-1, 2.97 ERA) will pitch the series finale. He’s 3-0 with a 1.77 ERA in three starts at home this season, with 25 strikeouts in 20 1/3 innings and a .176 opponent batting average.