MINNEAPOLIS (AP) For much of the season, the Minnesota Twins bullpen was falling short in the American League arms race.
Now that All-Star closer Glen Perkins is back healthy and Trevor May and Kevin Jepsen are throwing heat, the Twins hope they too now have the ability to shorten games as they chase their first playoff berth in five years.
Eduardo Nunez homered and Kyle Gibson pitched 5 2-3 scoreless innings to help the Twins to a 3-0 victory over the AL West-leading Houston Astros on Friday night.
Gibson (9-9) gave up four hits, struck out four and walked three. Jepsen picked up his ninth save after Perkins and May stopped the Astros in the seventh and eight innings, giving the Twins their seventh win in their last eight games to surge back into wild card contention.
''If you look at playoff teams, it's the bullpen that needs to lock down wins to get them there,'' Jepsen said. ''So many times when you have the lead after the fifth inning, sixth inning, those are games you expect to win. ... We take a lot of pride in that as a bullpen down there.''
Jepsen retired Astros star Jose Altuve on a fly ball with the bases loaded to end it.
Scott Kazmir (2-4) allowed three runs on three hits and struck out six in seven innings. But the lefty hit two batters in Minnesota's two-run fourth and the Astros left 10 runners on base.
A tantalizing matchup between two of the American League's top rookies never materialized. Houston shortstop Carlos Correa and Minnesota slugger Miguel Sano both were scratched with hamstring injuries.
Runs figured to be a challenge for the Twins without Sano and Joe Mauer, who was given a day off against the lefty Kazmir.
But Nunez led off the third with his third home run of the season and the Twins loaded the bases with nobody out in the fourth. Kazmir hit Torii Hunter to force one home and then Altuve made a stellar play at second base to turn what would have been a two-run single for Nunez into an RBI groundout that gave the Twins a 3-0 lead.
''His control left him in the fourth,'' Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. ''Everything he did wrong, he got burned.''
Perkins, who leads the AL with 31 saves, struck out two in his perfect seventh inning in his first action since Sunday because of a sore back.
''I felt a lot more like early season me tonight, and that's a good thing,'' Perkins said. ''I know I'll be able to help and that should help everybody else, too.''
When the schedule came out before the season, few would have circled this late-August series on the calendar as one that would include playoff implications. The Twins had lost at least 90 games in four straight seasons and the Astros lost 92 last season and no fewer than 106 the previous three.
Both struggling franchises have put the difficulties behind them in surprising fashion this season, with the Astros entering the series with a five-game lead in the AL West and the Twins right in the mix for a wild card.
''Tonight the (at)Twins open the biggest series at Target Field in five years,'' Twins President Dave St. Peter tweeted. ''See you at the ballpark.''
Astros: C Jason Castro left the game in the fifth inning after straining his right quad on a double. ... OF George Springer, on the disabled list with a fractured right wrist since July 1, is scheduled to start a rehabilitation assignment with Double-A Corpus Christi on Sunday. Manager A.J. Hinch said the hope was Springer would be ready when he was eligible to be activated on Sept. 4.
Twins: Molitor said he hopes that Sano will be available to DH on Saturday.
Houston sends Mike Fiers (1-0, 2.42) to the mound for the first time since he threw a no-hitter against the Dodgers on Aug. 21. The Twins will pitch right-hander Mike Pelfrey (6-7, 3.69), who lasted just 4 2-3 innings in a no-decision against Baltimore his last time out.
It was clear from the moment the ball left Nunez's bat in the third inning that he isn't used to hitting home runs. He threw his bat down in disgust, thinking he had popped out to left field. But the ball kept carrying, easily clearing the fence.
''I was surprised,'' Nunez said. ''But it was a good surprise.''