Tainted Astros sweep Twins to advance in MLB playoffs

Los Angeles (AFP) –

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The scandal-tainted Houston Astros became the first team to advance to the division series round in Major League Baseball's postseason on Wednesday, beating the Minnesota Twins 3-1 to complete a series sweep.

The Astros will now head to Los Angeles to face either the Oakland Athletics or Chicago White Sox in their American League Division Series match-up.

Last season's World Series runners-up, the Astros only squeezed into this year's expanded 16-team playoffs as sixth seeds after winning 29 games and losing 31 in baseball's abbreviated 60-game regular season.

But the 2017 champions had taken control of their best-of-three wild card series on Tuesday with a 4-1 victory at Minnesota's Target Field.

On Wednesday, Astros starter Jose Urquidy restricted the third-seeded Twins to just one run through the opening 4 1/3 innings and reliever Cristian Javier delivered three scoreless frames.

The Astros had taken the lead in the top of the fourth inning, when a Kyle Tucker single to left field brought Michael Brantley home to score.

Minnesota levelled it up in the bottom of the fifth, when Nelson Cruz's doubled from a line drive to allow former Astros player Marwin Gonzalez to score.

It was left to Carlos Correa to bust the game open in the seventh innning, belting a 430-foot homer off reliever Cody Stashak to restore Houston's lead.

Tucker then put Houston 3-1 up in the top of the ninth, driving a ground ball to right field that sent Brantley scampering over home plate for 3-1.

The defeat was a crushing end to the season for Minnesota, who had not suffered consecutive home defeats this year before Houston's back-to-back playoff victories.

The Astros meanwhile march on to a best-of-five divisional round that will take place at Dodger Stadium -- scene of their tarnished World Series triumph three years ago.

The Texan club have spent this season under a cheating cloud following revelations last year that they had used an elaborate and illegal sign-stealing scheme during their World Series-winning campaign in 2017.

The Astros were fined $5 million following an investigation into the scandal while general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were banned from all baseball activity for one year.

Luhnow and Hinch were subsequently fired by the Astros for their roles in the scandal.

In other playoff games on Wednesday, the Atlanta Braves took 1-0 lead in their National League wild card series against the Cincinnati Reds after a record low-scoring 13-inning battle.

Freddie Freeman's walk-off gave the Braves a 1-0 win. The game had made baseball history as the first ever postseason game to go scoreless through 12 innings before Freeman's winning single.