MINNEAPOLIS — This time things were going to be different for the Twins.
That’s what we all told ourselves — or at least far too many of us — as Minnesota prepared to play the New York Yankees in the American League Division Series. Twins president Dave St. Peter said it was time to “slay the dragon.” A Major League-record 307 regular-season home runs — one more than the Yankees hit — gave that statement necessary clout. So did a retooled bullpen that looked like it could hold up.
So what if the Twins had lost 13 consecutive playoff games and 10 in a row to these Yankees. That last loss came two years earlier in the AL wild card game with a team that had gotten there by winning only 85 games. These Twins won 101 games (the second-most in team history) to capture their first AL Central title since 2010. That also had been the last time the Twins had faced the Yankees in a playoff series and, as St. Peter said, those losses were his history, not Derek Falvey, Thad Levine, Rocco Baldelli or the players’ history.
So there was every reason to believe these Twins had a chance against the 103-win Yankees, right? Nope. Move over Terry Ryan, Ron Gardenhire, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, you guys have even more company on the can’t beat the Yankees bus. A team that scored a franchise record 939 runs and was dubbed the Bomba Squad simply bombed in scoring seven runs in being swept by the Yankees in three games.
New York completed the sweep with a 5-1 victory over the Twins on Monday night before 41,121 at Target Field. The Yankees outscored the Twins 23-7 in the three games and increased Minnesota’s playoff failure to preposterous levels. The Twins have lost 16 consecutive playoff games — their 14th loss in a row set an MLB record — with 13 of those coming against the Yankees. Minnesota is 2-16 all-time in the playoffs against the Yankees and have lost five times to them in the ALDS and once in the wild card game.
If those numbers aren’t staggering enough, maybe this one is. The Twins have now tied the 1975-79 Chicago Blackhawks for the longest postseason losing streak ever among teams in the four major professional sports.
“I don’t know,” Twins first baseman C.J. Cron said when asked about the losing streak. “I can only speak on these three games. They pitched better than us, they hit better than us, they played better defense and at the end of the day, when they do everything better than us, they’re probably going to win. I can only speak on these three games, I have no idea about the past.”
The problem was that in the present the Twins simply stopped scoring runs. Thirty-nine-year-old Nelson Cruz, who had 41 homers, went 2-for-10 with one home run. Cron was 1-for-5; Mitch Garver was 2-for-12; Max Kepler was 0-for-10; and Miguel Sano was 1-for-12 with a team-high eight strikeouts.
The Twins had nine hits on Monday and the Yankees made several nice plays in the field, but this wasn’t a case of Minnesota losing a series because of bad luck. It was a case of the Twins losing a series because they folded when they needed players to emerge. After losing the opening two games in New York, the Twins were hitting .197 as a team and had an ERA of 9.00.
But Jake Odorizzi, who should have gotten the ball for Game 2 but had to wait for Game 3 to start, provided an excellent effort on Monday. He gave up two runs and five hits with five strikeouts in five innings.
The Yankees took a 1-0 lead on Gleyber Torres’ home run to left in the top of the second but the Twins put the first three runners on base to start the bottom of the inning. Eddie Rosario, who went 1-for-9 in the Twins’ losses at Yankee Stadium, doubled off Luis Severino. Garver walked and Luis Arraez singled to bring up Sano with an opportunity to break open the game. Sano popped to first, Marwin Gonzalez struck out swinging and Jake Cave took a called third strike.
The Twins ended up stranding six runners in scoring position, going 1-for-12 in those situations. For the series, the Twins went 3-for-28 with runners in scoring position. That type of futility is how you become the first 100-win team in baseball history to be swept in the Division Series and the first 100-win team to be swept in the first round of the postseason since the 1980 Kansas City Royals were dispatched in three games in the ALCS.
“It’s baseball, so that can happen,” Baldelli said of the Twins’ offensive woes. “We’ve had other parts of our season where we’ve played three games and didn’t put very many runs on the board, too. You wish it didn’t happen in the playoffs, but it did. I thought we did swing the bats pretty good today. We hit more than a handful of balls on the barrel and didn’t have anything to show for it. … They made several good quality plays out there in the field that put them in a place to get through some of these innings. If we find some space, you never know. There’s no excuse there. I think we were beaten by a team that played better than us these three games.”
What’s sad about the above quote is that while it came from Baldelli on Oct. 7, 2019, it could have come from Gardenhire in 2003, 2004, 2009 or 2010. Baldelli’s first season as a big-league manager was an enormous success. No one could have imagined that when Baldelli was hired to replace Paul Molitor last fall that he would guide this ballclub to a division title and 100-plus victories.
Only now, Baldelli and his bosses (Falvey and Levine) have joined a fraternity that they wanted to avoid at all cost. The Twins spent the weeks leading up to this series dismissing any talk that playing the Yankees might be too much for them or that the past might be on their minds. But it’s impossible to dismiss that now.
“I don’t think anything affected our guys one bit,” Baldelli said. Our guys were ready to play. They were excited. We were all really just looking forward to getting the games going because there’s a lot going on. … We went out there, and we did our absolute best, like we do every single night, and this happened to be the result. But it doesn’t change anything. This was our absolute best effort. Nothing got in the way of it.”
Somehow, I’m guessing that won’t be a very comforting thought to long-suffering Twins fans who were hoping that this would be the year things finally changed.