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The heat is on: Twins under pressure to finally end embarrassing postseason losing streak

Rocco Baldelli
FILE – In this Monday, March 9, 2020, file photo, Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli speaks to players in the dugout before a spring training baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, in Fort Myers, Fla. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola, File)

Rocco Baldelli was hired as the Twins’ manager two years ago to take over a club that had appeared in one playoff game over the past eight seasons. The first four seasons of under .500 finishes had gotten longtime manager Ron Gardenhire fired. His replacement, Paul Molitor, oversaw two winning seasons in four years, including a berth in the 2017 AL wild card game, but a 78-84 finish in 2018 was enough to get Molitor bounced by Derek Falvey and Thad Levine.

Baldelli arrived in October 2018 having never before managed and, at 37, was the youngest person in baseball to hold a managerial position at the time. Baldelli quickly erased concerns about inexperience, guiding the Twins to a 101-61 record and an AL Central title in his first season. That was followed by a 36-24 mark and another division title last year in the pandemic-shortened season.

As Baldelli begins his third year on Thursday, when pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., it’s safe to say that expectations will be very different than they were when Falvey and Levine entrusted Rocco to carry out their vision from the dugout.

The change in attitude among the team’s faithful goes like this: You have spent two seasons proving you can win regular-season games, now do something in the playoffs.

The Twins’ postseason failures have become embarrassing. Minnesota is 0-5 under Baldelli in the playoffs — having been swept in three games by the Yankees in the AL Division Series in 2019 and in two games by Houston in the AL wild card round at home in 2020 — and are currently owners of an 18-game playoff losing streak that dates to 2004.

That is the longest postseason losing streak ever in any of the men’s four major North American professional sports. There was a time when Twins fans wondered if their team could beat the Yankees in a playoff series. Now the question is whether the Twins can beat any opponent just once in the postseason? (According to FiveThirty Eight’s win probabilities, the Twins’ odds of losing 18 consecutive games stood at 0.002 percent, or roughly 1 in 54,000.)

As the Twins entered the 2019 playoffs at Yankee Stadium, Baldelli and his players attempted to sell the fact that the then 13-game slide had nothing to do with them. Some players had been around for the 2017 loss to the Yankees in the wild card game, but the last time the Twins had been in an actual playoff series was 2010. “That was then, this is now,” was the refrain at the time.

This is no longer the case. There are several Twins who have been part of the postseason flops of the past two years, including losing to a Houston team that was the only AL playoff participant to finish under .500 (29-31) last season. The Twins scored only two runs and hit .119 against the Astros after scoring seven runs and hitting .218 against the Yankees.

A year ago, the Twins arrived in Fort Myers filled with hope that they would build on the success of a team that had hit a Major League-record 307 home runs in 2019. The addition of free agent Josh Donaldson on four-year, $92 million contract added more pop and enabled Miguel Sano to make the transition to first base. But then COVID-19 shut down things in mid-March and a regular season that was played with no fans at Target Field did not begin until late July. Donaldson was limited to 28 games because of a recurring calf problem that also sidelined him for the playoffs and should have many holding their breath entering this season.

The Twins made a few moves late in the offseason — retaining designated hitter Nelson Cruz and signing shortstop Andrelton Simmons and righthanded reliever Alex Colome — but the White Sox are now the trendy pick in the AL Central after they added starter Lance Lynn, closer Liam Hendriks and outfielder Adam Eaton.

The Twins should be fine with this. Making the playoffs is no longer a novelty in these parts. It’s expected. Winning a single playoff game? Now, that might be reason for a parade.