Everything And Nothing Changed For The Twins In Just One Inning
10:06 AM EDT on October 8, 2023
It was sometime after Yordan Alvarez scored and put Houston up 5-0 on the Twins, but before Justin Verlander pitched his final strikeout and caught Carlos Correa staring at dust trails, that the familiar feeling of watching Minnesota postseason baseball settled into my body. In my game notes I wrote, and highlighted: "hard to shake that consolation prize feeling."
The Twins became a baseball darling because they broke the curse of 18 straight postseason loses when they beat, and eventually swept, Toronto in the wild card round. Investing in sports to some measure means loving a non-spiritual notion of karma and the creation or breaking of streaks. Notionally, we love vibes. But vibes can curdle. Saturday evening that familiar feeling returned, like watching a Yankees lineup with Mark Teixeira and Hideki Matsui fist-pumping your joy down the drain as they drill homers into the ionosphere. It is the consolation prize feeling the bores into you and whispers: Congratulations, you made the playoffs. Now die.
But then something odd happened Saturday. At the top of the seventh inning Astros manager Dusty Baker retired Verlander, despite the fact his pitcher was on a heater, having only allowed four hits and three walks in what looked like a shutout. In his place came Hector Neris, who proceeded to plunk Twins left fielder Matt Wallner with a fastball, and gave up a first-pitch single to catcher Ryan Jeffers. Is that faint feeling indigestion? No. Curiosity, maybe? After two outs, Jorge Polanco came to bat and cranked a three-run homer to right and the great unclenching began. And then Royce Lewis stepped up to the plate.
Thanks to his consecutive homers against the Blue Jays, Lewis had already achieved "your money is no good here" status at any bar, tavern or VFW Post from Thief River Falls to Albert Lea and every Minnesota town in-between. With two outs, Lewis dialed up another homer, sailing a fastball 400 feet into the sky over left field. Just like that Minnesota was down one run, 5-4, and my spirit had now become a combustible as Pop Rocks in a can of Dr. Pepper. These Twins, unlike the teams lodged in memories that should have been replaced by anything sweeter, had fight and tenacity, they could still cook while the game otherwise seemed to be turning to shit.
Which, technically speaking, it very much still did. In the bottom of the seventh Twins manager Rocco Baldelli brought in lefty Caleb Thielbar from the bullpen in hopes of halting Alvarez with the classic lefty switcheroo. This resulted in a high flying ball deep to right field that loudly pinged its way off the foul pole into home run territory. Houston won 6-4.
In the playoffs every loss matters and time narrows faster than you can imagine. These are just the facts. But there is something different, tactically and psychically, to losing in a shutout or moving a few stranded runners across home plate and putting the defending World Series champions and reigning villains on notice. For six innings it looked like the Twins were done, despite what appeared to be cracks in Houston's facade. Verlander looked a mess early on trying to land his pitches, having to rely on double plays in the first and second inning to hold off Twins runs. This would be more encouraging if not for the fact Jose Altuve rocked a leadoff fastball from Bailey Ober into the left field stands, and two innings later Alvarez had his first homer of the night, bringing the score to 3-0. More troubling, Verlander regained his form and the strikeouts pilled up.
Baldelli's squad started to resemble the teams of the past. The Twins of old were survivalists, their stock-in-trade was, to use an awful word, pluck. It's a great way to win, but a worse way to die, when stealing runs off base hits never add up, or tight defense gets overwhelmed and star pitchers get shelled. These Twins are also still in danger. Much like the wild card series, they stranded far too many runners in scoring position, going 1 for 12 in game one. Leaving that much on the plate is passable against the Blue Jays, but a recipe for death by starvation against the Astros.
And yet, it feels like these Twins are selling a different story. Already that's better than any consolation prize. Yes, they still rely on clever defense and a brigade of middle relief. But I don't know if I would call these guys plucky. Correa, who had two hits in game 1, has to be itching for some revenge against his former team, as long as he can stay healthy. And as Polanco and Lewis showed, they are capable of bringing the threat of real power at the plate. If you are in need of any more good omens, consider that Lewis now only trails Kirby Puckett for the team record of most home runs in a single postseason. Yes, they did not snatch victory from defeat, but they did not let the specter of defeat snatch life from them. Perhaps the vibes remain uncurdled.