MINNEAPOLIS -- After struggling throughout August, Ervin Santana returned to form to throw seven scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts and the Twins got home runs from Eduardo Nunez and Miguel Sano to earn a 7-5 win over the Astros on Sunday afternoon at Target Field.
Santana's gem and the 7-0 lead the homers gave the Twins through eight innings helped Minnesota survive Houston's five-run ninth. With their eighth win in their last 10 games, the Twins kept pace with the Rangers, who also won Sunday to maintain their 1 1/2-game lead over Minnesota for the second American League Wild Card slot.
Santana, who had a 9.12 ERA over his five previous outings, turned in his best outing of the season, scattering six hits without a walk to get his first win since July 23 and his first at home this year. Santana lowered his ERA from 6.05 to 5.40 in the process. It also broke a streak of eight straight starts from Twins pitchers not being able to reach six innings.
"We've been looking for a start to pick us up, and Ervin got it done today," Twins manager Paul Molitor said. "He allowed a lot of leadoff guys to get on and didn't have a lot of clean innings, so to speak, but he made pitches when he had to. He had a little extra in the tank to reach back and stranded some runners out there."
Santana outdueled Astros rookie right-hander Lance McCullers, who surrendered three runs on four hits and four walks over six innings. He was hurt by three walks in the first and a two-out, two-run blast from Nunez in the sixth.
"I think we had a tough time getting into the game today," Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. "They score in the first inning without getting a hit. I think that was sort of the theme of the series. We lose the series on just giving up 90 feet too much. Too many walks, too many hit by pitches, and it came back to bite us."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Sano's shot caps four-run seventh: The Twins broke the game open in the seventh against Astros relievers Chad Qualls and Oliver Perez. Brian Dozier started the rally with a one-out triple, Eduardo Escobar followed with an RBI double and scored on a single from Joe Mauer and Sano gave Minnesota a 7-0 lead with a two-run rocket to left for his 13th homer since being called up on July 2.
Astros' fight falls just short: The Astros were shut out through eight innings, but they quickly made it interesting in the ninth, with Chris Carter's three-run blast off Ryan O'Rourke, projected by Statcast™ to land 454 feet away, and a two-run shot from second baseman Jose Altuve off Trevor May. But May got Marwin Gonzalez to strike out to seal the Twins' series victory.
"This is the team we are. I think we've been doing this all season long," Altuve said. "We battle to the end. We took some good at-bats in the last inning. The game didn't finish 7-0 like it started in the ninth inning." More >
Nunez's blast provides breathing room: The Twins were clinging to a 1-0 lead before Nunez launched a two-run shot in the sixth inning. The two-out shot off the facing of the second deck was the fourth big fly of the season for Nunez, who also homered against the Astros on Friday.
"Nunez's home run was big," Molitor said. "It gave us some separation."
McCullers wild in first: The Twins scored a run in the first before getting a hit, as McCullers loaded the bases with three walks and Minnesota capitalized on an Eddie Rosario sacrifice fly. McCullers bounced back from the one-run first to put up zeros in the next four innings. His four walks on the day tied a season-high.
"I had a tough time getting ahead," McCullers said. "A couple times I was throwing pitches that are usually there for me for some pretty sure strikes and they just weren't there in the first inning."
"I know there's character in there. We're resilient. There's a lot of things I've enjoyed watching about us. We're aggressive and we're finding a way to hang in there." -- Molitor, on the Twins, who head to September with a 67-63 record
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Santana became the first Twins pitcher to reach 10 strikeouts this season, as the last to do it was May on Sept. 14, 2014, against the White Sox. The last time Santana struck out at least 10 batters was July 28, 2014, against the Padres.
WHAT'S NEXT Astros:Dallas Keuchel will get the ball as the Astros return home to take on the Mariners in the opener of a three-game series on Monday at 7:10 p.m. CT. Keuchel is 15-6 with a 2.28 ERA but gave up five runs in six innings in his only outing against the Mariners this season.
Twins: The Twins have an off-day on Monday before beginning a three-game series against the White Sox on Tuesday at 7:10 p.m. CT. Rookie right-hander Tyler Duffey, who has posted a 1.89 ERA over his last three starts, will take the mound for Minnesota.