Way back in late-March, on a cold but sunny early spring day, Jose Berrios and Corey Kluber had perhaps the best pitchers’ duel of the Twins’ season.
Berrios was brilliant for 7 2/3 innings, striking out ten Cleveland hitters and allowing just two hits. Kluber was just as good, taking a no-hitter into the 6th, before Byron Buxton roped a one-out double over Jake Bauers’ head in left. In the 7th, the Twins’ offense finally struck, thanks to three new additions. Nelson Cruz and C.J. Cron hit solid singles to left and center, before Marwin Gonzalez lashed a double into the left-center field gap, scoring two. Target Field and the Twins’ dugout were on their feet, applauding a late-inning rally orchestrated by three players who’d been added just months before. Two innings later, Rocco Baldelli had his first win as a big league manager, and a new era of Twins baseball was upon us.
The Twins took two out of three from Cleveland that weekend, planting their flag early as a legitimate contender in the A.L. Central. They hovered around first place through the season’s early weeks, playing game after game in frigid conditions, manufacturing most of their runs as they waited for the weather to turn and the juiced ball to fly. On April 20, in a doubleheader sweep of Baltimore, it did, 11 times. Finally playing in warm weather, against a poor Orioles pitching staff, the soon-to-be-named Bomba Squad had their coming out party.
In the first game, Eddie Rosario hit two home runs, Willians Astudillo hit another, and the Twins won 6-5. In the nightcap, it was a clinic. Nelson Cruz smashed two mammoth blasts. Cron hit a laser into the left field stands. Rosario added another, his third of the day, and Mitch Garver and Jonathan Schoop both hit two.
The home runs continued at a historic pace. 12 in a three-game sweep of Baltimore at the end of the month. Eight more in a three-game sweep in Toronto. 22 on a 6-1 west coast road trip in Seattle and Anaheim.
This was the Twins. The Twins! A franchise that for decades struggled to produce anyone who could hit 30 home runs in a season and preached hitting the ball the other way and productive outs. A franchise that hadn’t finished in even the top ten in Major League Baseball in home runs since 1991. They were taking the league by storm. Mashing their way through opposing pitching staffs to win slugfest after slugfest after slugfest. It was, for anyone who’d followed the franchise, shocking to watch. Perhaps no other team in the league, historically at least, seemed less likely to do this than the Twins.
It was a balanced attack that gave opposing pitchers no breaks. New additions Cruz, Cron, Schoop, and Gonzalez mashed right out of the gate. Mainstays Garver, Rosario, Jorge Polanco, and Max Kepler all appeared to be taking the next step offensively. Byron Buxton, after a lost 2018 season, began turning doubles to left into home runs, while playing at a near-MVP level. Miguel Sano, after missing the season’s first forty games, came back and joined the fray, fighting through an early season mechanical issue to find his swing and launch balls into the third deck at Target Field. All of it was a sight to behold.
As summer began, the Twins had the best record in baseball. After taking three of four in Tampa, they entered a series against second-place Cleveland with a 40-18 record, an 11.5 game lead, the best offense in the game, and two all-star starting pitchers. Minnesota, it appeared, had been molded into a super team.
There seemed to be only one weakness. Outside of Taylor Rogers—who was phenomenal—their bullpen struggled to find consistency. Cleveland scored late twice in that early-June series to take the first two, but Jose Berrios pitched the Twins to a win in the finale, and we shrugged off the ‘pen as a problem the front office would fix. The Twins were 10.5 up, after all, and the division was over. It was over, right?
Through June and into July, Cleveland began quietly closing the gap, aided by a long stretch against Central also-rans Chicago, Kansas City, and Detroit. Minnesota, meanwhile, was playing just above .500 ball, slugging enough home runs to keep Cleveland at arm’s length, while adding electric 22-year old prospect Luis Arraez to the mix, who seemed to come out of nowhere to provide electricity in every fantastic, energy-filled at-bat he took. They sat 5.5 up at the All-Star break, somehow sending only Polanco, Berrios, and Jake Odorizzi to the game in a clear sign that the league and its fans still weren’t buying into the team.
Minnesota took two of three from Cleveland to start the second half, but the ‘pen struggled badly in an ugly two-game home sweep at the hands of the Mets. By late-July, the ‘pen was a huge concern, after coughing up a series of late leads against the Mets and A’s. The starting staff, too, was mostly treading water after Berrios and Odorizzi. Kyle Gibson and Martin Perez were inconsistent and failed to get deep into games, and Michael Pineda pitched well, but also rarely went deep and struggled with nagging injuries. By the time the Yankees came to town on July 22, the lead on Cleveland was just three, as fans counted down the days until the Twins acquired the pitching help they needed at the trade deadline to lock down the division.
With the focus squarely on the deadline, the Yankees were almost an after-thought, at least until the games began. Minnesota won a shootout in game one, 8-6. The second game may have been the game of the year in all of baseball. The top two power-hitting offenses in the league went toe to toe for ten breathtaking innings that featured 35 hits, six home runs, three lead changes after the 7th inning, and a two-out, bases loaded diving catch on the warning track by Aaron Hicks in the bottom of the 10th to secure a 14-12 Yankees win. The Bronx Bombers outslugged the Bomba Squad again in game 3, 10-7, and the Yankees and Twins both left the series lavishing praise on one another in what seemed like a preview of a potentially epic October matchup.
A week later, the trade deadline came and went without the Twins making a major move. They’d failed to acquire the starter most everyone felt they needed for October, watching Marcus Stroman go to the Mets for a prospect package they could have matched without blinking an eye. Mike Minor, Robbie Ray, and Noah Syndergaard, all thought to be available, stayed put, as the Twins and others failed to meet the necessary asking price. Relievers Sergio Romo and Sam Dyson—two solid adds—came to Minnesota, but the prevailing feeling in Twins Territory was that the front office was too conservative in failing to give a great team what it needed to make a deep October run.
A day later, Dyson—in his first appearance as a Twin–blew a three-run lead in Miami, while Byron Buxton left the game after running into the center field wall. By mid-August, after losing three of four at home to Cleveland, the Twins found themselves in second place for the first time since April, and it felt like everything had come crashing down.
As they’d done all year, though, the Twins responded, taking five of six at Milwaukee and Texas and continuing their dominance on the road (they’d finish an MLB-best 55-26 away from home) while retaking the Central lead.
The lead hovered between three and six games through the second-half of August and into September, even as the Twins got more bad news. Michael Pineda, who’d become the reliable third starter the Twins desperately needed, was hit with a season-ending PED suspension, and Byron Buxton underwent shoulder surgery, officially ending another injury-plagued year that saw him play exceptionally well when healthy.
On August 31 in Detroit, they set the all-time single-season home run record. In mid-September, riding a revamped ‘pen led by Rogers, Tyler Duffey, May, Romo, and a little-known former Uber driver named Randy Dobnak, they swept a doubleheader in Cleveland, with Miguel Sano hitting an 8th-inning go-ahead grand slam that essentially ended the division. Nine days later, they clinched. Then came 100 wins, and on the season’s final day, the home run title, beating out the Yankees by one.
It was the second-best regular season in franchise history, trailing only the 1965 Twins. They were the home run kings, ended Cleveland’s three-year reign in the Central, and carried a quiet swagger all year that suggested they had the confidence and talent to prove the historic season they’d just orchestrated could translate into an October push that would include finally ending the 16-year run of playoff ineptitude against the Yankees.
The narrative heading into New York, from both the Twins and the media, was that this group was different. Those other teams—the ones that had lost 13 playoff games in a row, 10 to the Yankees—had nothing to do with this squad. It made sense. Only seven players on the playoff roster even appeared in the 2017 Wild Card Game, none on playoff teams before that. Cruz, Gonzalez, Romo, and Baldelli set the tone as quiet leaders who’d been there before and performed on the biggest stages. They may or may not win the series, we thought, but they wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the bright lights of New York the way all those other teams seemed to be. It would be a heavy-weight fight; two historically good offenses mashing homers back and forth for four, maybe five games.
Then the games started. After taking an early two-run lead in Game One, Minnesota’s defense—a concern all season—abandoned them. Arraez, hobbled by a sprained ankle, couldn’t track down a DJ LeMahieu bloop to start the third, the ball grazing off the top of his glove. Five batters later, Cron let a low, but very catchable throw get by him on what should have been an inning-ending double play, turning a 2-1 Twins lead into a 3-2 deficit. They’d never lead in the series again.
Berrios pitched well, but Baldelli elected to lift him after four innings and 88 pitches. The Twins, surely, would go straight to their top ‘pen options in a tie game—May, Romo, Duffey, and Rogers. Otherwise, why pull Berrios? Instead, they tried to get cute, and it blew up in their face.
Baldelli—in what surely was a decision aided by consultation with the front office before the series—elected to bring in Zack Littell in the 5th. Littell, to be fair, had been very good all year, and deserved to be pitching in the playoffs. He was, though, the fifth best option out of the ‘pen. It seemed strange to use him over Berrios, who’d struck out six in four innings and gave up just one earned run. It backfired immediately. Littell, pitching in a charged Yankee Stadium, walked Aaron Judge, then hit Brett Gardner. Tyler Duffey finally came on to retire the Yankees, but not before giving up a two-run double off Miguel Sano’s glove.
In the sixth, it got worse. Now trailing by just one, the Twins brought in rookie reliever Cody Stashak, despite having three fresh, elite arms available. Stashak, who later said even he was surprised to get the call in that spot, gave up two home runs. Still just a three-run game, the Twins then gave the ball to Kyle Gibson, who was on the bubble just to make the playoff roster. Gibson gave up three more, and the Twins lost 10-4, their top three arms never entering the game.
The game was, in the eyes of many, completely botched by Twins decision-makers. It seemed illogical, at best, to throw young pitchers into the fire in a tight playoff game at Yankee Stadium, while more experienced, better arms sat unused.
In Game 2, though, the Twins took the same approach. They chose to start another rookie, Dobnak, over seasoned veteran Jake Odorizzi. Dobnak had a great year and deserved a playoff start, but it felt as though the Twins hadn’t learned their lesson. Like Littell and Stashak before him, Dobnak didn’t pitch well in front of a raucous crowd, giving up 4 earned runs in two innings.
To blame any of the young pitchers would be profoundly unfair—they were put in a near-impossible situation by a front office and coaching staff that had been so good all season at balancing analytics with the human element. Their apparent change in thinking couldn’t have worked out any worse, and the Twins left New York down 0-2, with Odorizzi, Rogers, Romo, and May throwing zero combined meaningful pitches.
In Game 3, Odorizzi finally got his shot, and pitched well. The bats that carried them all season fell silent, though, as they had for most of the series. Inning after inning, they put runners in scoring position—including loading the bases with no outs in the second—and came away empty. The fans at Target Field who’d waited nine years for playoff baseball were ready to explode, but the Twins’ offense simply gave them no opportunity to do so, squandering chance after chance after chance after chance. Fans began leaving in the 7th, and headed to the exits in droves in the 9th, just before the Twins put together one last failed rally.
In the end, it was the least competitive playoff series of them all. The Twins were outscored 23-7. The offense failed in just about every big spot, the defense was porous, the decision making brutal. The Twins ended the series having lost 16 playoff games in a row (13 to the Yankees), setting a new MLB record.
What are we to make of the 2019 Twins? Will they be remembered for the record-setting offense and 101 wins? For a summer that brought fans back to the field and winning baseball back to the state? Or will the lasting image of the Bomba Squad be yet another playoff meltdown, when they played their worst baseball when it mattered most? It can be all of these things, of course, which is probably what the team deserves. This season though, perhaps more than any other, felt different, which is what makes the all-too-familiar October collapse sting just a little bit more.