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Zulgad: Twins manager looks at bright side, but reality is his club fumbled golden opportunity

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Minnesota Twins manager Rocco Baldelli watches against the Detroit Tigers in the seventh inning of the first game of a baseball doubleheader in Detroit, Tuesday, May 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

The Twins opened a three-game series against the AL East-leading New York Yankees on Tuesday at Target Field facing a trio of top-line starters: James Taillon (6-1, 2.30 ERA), Nester Cortes (5-1, 1.50) and Gerrit Cole (5-1, 2.78). Runs figured to be hard to come by and, as usual, the Twins appeared to be in trouble against the team that long has made them their punching bag.

But when Cole departed after giving up five home runs in 2.1 innings on Thursday with the Yankees trailing 7-3, he became the third of the three New York starters who failed to complete five innings. Combined Taillon, Cortes and Cole gave up 15 runs, 24 hits and eight home runs in 10.2 innings.

That’s a 12.65 ERA and should have resulted in at least two wins, if not a series sweep for Rocco Baldelli’s club. Instead, after opening the bottom of the first inning with three consecutive home runs off Cole (Luis Arraez, Byron Buxton and Carlos Correa) — only the seventh team to do so since 1900 — the Twins got subpar pitching and some sloppy fielding that contributed to a 10-7 loss in the final game of the series.

The Yankees left Minneapolis with two wins. The Twins (33-26) remain in first place in the American League Central with a three-game lead over Cleveland, but instead of making a statement against the Yankees, they had many in the crowd of 26,646 fans heading for the exits in the eighth inning.

The apologists will point to the fact that the Twins won two of three last weekend at Toronto (the third place team in the AL East) and that the length of the baseball season means getting upset about a loss here or a meltdown there is a waste of time.

That was how Baldelli elected to discuss a series in which the Twins opened with a 10-4 loss before crushing the Yankees 8-1 on Wednesday.

“Obviously, we didn’t close the game out the way (we wanted), that’s pretty straight forward to all,” Baldelli said. “I was really happy with the way we came out, playing a really good team. Maybe one of the best teams in baseball. We think we’re right there, too. We went right at them. Went after one of the best starters in baseball today and hit him around pretty good.

“I couldn’t been happier with the at-bats that we had and we kept coming back. We did a lot of good today, so I’m not going to sit here and talk about the stuff. … We know we dropped a popup (in the sixth), we didn’t complete some plays. We’ve got to play crisper baseball if we’re going to get outs in the middle of the game, late in the game and make it happen. But I think we fought pretty good.”

Fighting pretty good isn’t good enough for a team that has a North American playoff record losing streak of 18 consecutive games, including five by the current brass. The Twins have won two AL Central titles under Baldelli’s leadership but have yet to win a postseason game, despite having home-field advantage in a best two-of-three against the Astros in 2020.

Nobody expected Baldelli to yell and scream after Thursday’s loss — that’s not his style and it never will be — but his acceptance of an inexcusable defeat had to be difficult to stomach for a fan base that hasn’t exactly embraced this team, despite its place in the standings. The Twins have made plenty of questionable pitching decisions under the guidance of Derek Falvey, the team’s president of baseball operations, and starting Cole Sands and Dylan Bundy in two of the three games against the Yankees qualified.

The real surprise was that the Twins didn’t try to give Opening Day starter Joe Ryan a chance to return against the Yankees. Ryan, who had been on the COVID-19 list, started for the Triple-A Saints on Thursday in St. Paul and pitched three shutout innings against Rochester. Taking your chances with Ryan after a layoff would have been preferable to sending Bundy and his 5.57 ERA to the mound. Bundy was lifted after giving up a leadoff homer to Joey Gallo in the fifth inning. His line: Four runs and five hits with a walk and a strikeout in four innings.

The bullpen did the rest of the damage as the next four relievers gave up six runs and nine hits. By the time it was over, the Twins ‘ five home runs were a distant memory. The Yankees are now 95-37 against the Twins since 2002, the best record by any big-league team against an opponent in its own league in that span. That record is 110-39, if you include the postseason.

The Twins had every opportunity, at least for one series, to make a statement that they were done having sand kicked in their face by the Yankees. Instead, poor pitching and key miscues left Twins fans feeling that little had changed or will change, if Minnesota ends up winning the woeful AL Central.

Baldelli, however, took a page from the Pollyanna playbook.

“I think we go forward in a better spot, having played a game like that,” he said. “We know what we have to do. I don’t think it’s a game to dwell on. It was a good, hard fought series. There was a lot more that I was pleased about in that series than what I would talk bad about.”

That makes one of us.