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Zulgad: What should have been: Twins’ comeback win both exciting and maddening

MLB: New York Yankees at Minnesota Twins
Jun 10, 2021; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Twins designated hitter Nelson Cruz (23) celebrates with teammates after hitting a two run walk off home run in the ninth inning against the New York Yankees at Target Field. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 Twins were in typical form through eight innings of Thursday’s game against New York at Target Field. That’s why it appeared all but certain the Yankees would complete a three-game sweep as Minnesota came to bat trailing by two runs entering the bottom of the ninth inning. The Yankees turned to hard-throwing closer Aroldis Chapman, who was 12 for 13 in save opportunities and had a 0.39 earned-run average.

But Jorge Polanco led off off with a single to left. Josh Donaldson, who entered the game hitting .244 and was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, then smashed a 1-0, 96-mile-per-hour four-seamer from Chapman into the upper deck in left-center to tie the score at 5-5. This was what the Twins had expected when they signed Donaldson to a four-year, $92 million contract in January 2020. A former AL MVP would could make a difference against the best in the game.

Suddenly, Target Field was alive as if it was 2019 all over again. Willians Astudillo, pinch hitting for Nick Gordon, singled to left on the first pitch. Nelson Cruz followed Astudillo’s lead and wasted no time in hammering Chapman’s first pitch, a 98-mph four-seamer into the juniper plants in center field. Final: Twins 7, Yankees 5.

It was a thrilling finish to an otherwise far-too-long (3 hour, 31 minute) game in which the Twins fans among the 17,728 in attendance spent most of the evening in a disgruntled state. It also was a rare highlight for a team that remains 12 games under .500 and in last place in the AL Central, 13 games back of the division-leading White Sox.

Maybe that’s why the sudden explosion that came against one of the top closers in the big leagues was met with mixed emotions. This was the type of game we all expected we’d see against top teams from the Twins this season. The two-time defending AL Central champs were supposed to battle the White Sox for supremacy in the division, beating up on lesser opponents and engaging in tightly contested games with teams like the Yankees and Astros, who will begin a three-game series at Target Field on Friday night.

Instead, the Twins have been one of the biggest busts in baseball this season and any hope of getting back into the postseason mix is almost certainly gone, even though 100 games remain. The Yankees entered their series against the Twins on a four-game losing streak, but easily took the first two games, 8-4 and 9-6.

Giancarlo Stanton’s first-inning home run on Thursday — his third in two days — gave New York a 3-0 lead against starter J.A. Happ and it appeared the Yankees would do what they always do — beat up on the Twins. New York was 25-9 against Minnesota since the start of 2015 and 25-11 all-time at Target Field.

But for one inning, and four batters, the Twins’ ineptitude of 2021, magically disappeared. As Cruz trotted around the bases following his sixth career walk-off home run and first since he was with Seattle in 2017, teammates waited at home plate to celebrate with him and provide a welcome shower of Gatorade or whatever sport drink was in the team’s cooler.

For one night, manager Rocco Baldelli wouldn’t have to answer questions about what’s gone wrong with his team, why they can’t beat the Yankees and why we need to remember about all the injuries the Twins have suffered. (The Twins are far from the only team to have injury issues.)

Cruz, one of many veterans the Twins need to be actively shopping in hopes of getting prospects, could forget the team’s problems for one night, as could Donaldson and everyone else who has underachieved for two-plus months.

It was a welcome moment. It was a fun moment. But it also was maddening. For one night, the Twins provided the type of comeback and power display that we expected to be a regular thing in 2021. Instead, what we saw Thursday was a sad reminder of what should have been.