MINNEAPOLIS — The Twins have won back-to-back AL Central titles under manager Rocco Baldelli and, yet, it has become ridiculous to talk about this team winning a playoff series when it can’t even win a playoff game.
The Twins again proved how inept they are in the postseason on Tuesday afternoon at Target Field, failing to score a run after having the bases load in the first inning and then having shortstop Jorge Polanco commit a crucial miscue in the Astros’ three-run ninth, in a 4-1 loss in the opening game of their best-of-three first-round series. The Astros, the only American League playoff participant to have had a losing record in the regular season, are now one game away from ending the Twins’ season.
The sad thing? If the Astros are successful, no one will be surprised.
The Twins’ playoff losing streak is now at 17 games, giving them sole possession of the North American major sports record for consecutive postseason setbacks. The Yankees’ three-game sweep of the Twins last fall had put Minnesota in a tie with the Chicago Blackhawks of 1975 to ’79 for the mark.
The Yankees had been responsible for 13 of the Twins’ losses and appeared to be the main thing standing between Minnesota and potential playoff success. Turns out that might not be the case. The baffling thing might is that the Twins continue to try to distance themselves from a streak that now is clearly theirs.
— SKOR North (@SKORNorth) September 29, 2020
“We have a lot of guys in the clubhouse, but I’d say the vast majority of them don’t know the Twins’ history at all,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said after Tuesday’s loss. “The people on this call certainly follow those types of things pretty closely. I’m sure the fanbase does, too, one way or the other, but the players don’t. So no, I don’t think there’s really anything to talk about. I think if I brought that up, they’d probably look at me funny and wonder what the hell I was saying.”
Did Baldelli watch his team on Tuesday? Many of his players were holding their bats tight enough that they could have turned the wood sawdust. Astros starter Zack Greinke got off to a rough start in the first inning, giving up a single to Byron Buxton and back-to-back walks to load the bases with one out. The Twins had their Nos. 5-6 hitters coming up — Eddie Rosario and Miguel Sano — and a chance to bury Houston early. Rosario hit a screamer that was caught by first baseman Yuli Gurriel and Sano hit a slow roller that third baseman Alex Bregman fielded and got him by less than a step.
That should have set the tone for the afternoon. Instead it turned into a case of, here we go again. Nelson Cruz’s third-inning double scored Max Kepler but that was only the other hit Greinke gave up in four innings. Lefthander Framber Valdez, the Astros’ starter-turned-playoff-reliever, walked the first two hitters he faced in the fifth inning and then retired 13 in a row before giving up two hits in the ninth with one out.
As Baldelli went through his bullpen, using five relievers after pulling starter Kenta Maeda at least an inning early (after five), Astros manager Dusty Baker managed to not use a reliever and put himself in great position for Game 2 on Wednesday.
If the Twins’ ineptitude at the plate wasn’t enough, the team’s miscues in the field only added to the fact that Baldelli’s team is playing tight. The Astros tied the score in the seventh on a base hit by George Springer after slow-footed Martin Maldonado hit a ball to third base that Marwin Gonzalez couldn’t handle. It was ruled a hit but that’s a play veteran Josh Donaldson likely would have made, had he not been held off the playoff roster because of a right calf injury.
It got worse.
Reliever Sergio Romo, who for some reason Baldelli seems to trust more than most, gave up back-to-back singles to start the ninth before he got the Nos. 8-9 hitters in the Astros lineup. This brought up Springer with men on first and second. Romo appeared to get out of the mess by getting a ground ball to Polanco, who made the fielding play but then threw off target to second baseman Luis Arraez. That loaded the bases and the next hitter, Jose Altuve, drew a walk to bring in the go-ahead run. The Astros padded the lead on Michael Brantley’s single off Caleb Thielbar.
The Twins got two runners on in the ninth with one out before Willians Astudillo, pinch-hitting for Alex Avila, grounded into a double play. The loss didn’t end the Twins’ season, but how are they going to rebound to win two games when they can’t even win one? The Astros entered Tuesday with a 9-23 road record this season and looked very much like a team that did not want to go into the bubble tournament that will follow the first round.
Even with that being the case, the Twins looked like a team that had the weight of the world on its shoulders and no idea how to avoid defeat in the face of pressure. That pressure comes from what has been near constant playoff futility by Twins teams past and present. Baldelli might not want to acknowledge it, but he and his players aren’t going to end this embarrassing skid until they own it.
Until that happens, talking about the Twins winning a playoff series is a waste of time.