For a half inning Tuesday night, the Minnesota Twins showed the New York Yankees the equivalent of a pair of middle fingers as they raced out to a 3-0 lead.
However, the rest of the night was all too familiar, as the Bronx Bombers outscored the Twins 8-1 the rest of the way for an 8-4 win at Yankee Stadium. The loss was the Twins’ 13th in a row in postseason play, dating back to Johan Santana outdueling Mike Mussina in Game 1 of the 2004 ALDS, which was played at the previous iteration Yankee Stadium, just across East 161st Street from where Tuesday’s game was played.
The final pitch came after midnight Eastern time, meaning these two teams came 24 hours shy of playing on the 13th anniversary of the Twins’ last playoff win. As it stands, the Twins haven’t won a playoff game in 4,747 days — a 13-game losing skid that is now tied with the Boston Red Sox (1986, ‘88, ‘90 and ‘95) for the longest in MLB history.
Fans will cite the history as though it means something, and frankly to them, it does. Through thick and thin, fans remain the same. But the faces change — on both sides, really — and so while the Twins have a staggering 33-91 record against the Yankees dating back to the beginning of the Ron Gardenhire era, the history doesn’t matter much to the players. Sure, they’re aware of it, but it’s just like why citing Joe Mauer’s career numbers against C.C. Sabathia aren’t as meaningful as they sound.
Mauer and Sabathia might have an extensive history replete with a lot of battles, but neither even remotely resembles the player they were when they squared off in Joe’s MLB debut in 2004.
Winston Churchill may have said that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it, but the honest-to-goodness fact was the Twins simply didn’t have the horses to keep up with the Yankees.
With that said, on any given day, an MLB team can beat any other — and for a while, it seemed like the Twins had a good chance.
Brian Dozier ambushed a 3-1 fastball to lead the game off with a home run, and five pitches in, the Twins had a 1-0 lead. After Mauer hit a pop foul to third, Jorge Polanco walked and Eddie Rosario hit a laser into the right field seats, and just 17 pitches into the game, the Twins had a 3-0 lead and had stud righty Luis Severino reeling.
The Twins had jumped him in his mid-September starter for three runs as well, but that took three innings rather than four batters.
It didn’t stop there, as Eduardo Escobar hit a sizzling liner into center for a single, and took third when Max Kepler was credited with a double to right on a ball Aaron Judge mishandled for just a brief second.
Maybe most write-ups of the game won’t focus in on this point, but we will — this is where manager Joe Girardi more or less won the game. Rather than sticking with the righty who was for all intents and purposes the third-best starter in the American League all season, he turned the game over to the bullpen with just one out in the first inning.
That is, the bullpen with the best strikeout rate in baseball — one that rolled five deep before any of their relievers could be considered a peer with what the Twins were working with. Like all relievers, much of the Yankees ‘pen ebbed and flowed as the season went along. Probably the most consistent performer all season long was Chad Green, and that’s who Girardi went to with one out, runners on second and third and a game teetering on the precipice.
Not only did the Twins not cash in either of those runners — an outcome that may very well have totally changed the face of the game — but they scored just once the rest of the way, when Byron Buxton legged out the back end of a 6-4-3 double play attempt to even the game at four runs apiece.
In a play emblematic of how the night went, Buxton made a great play in center field — slamming into the wall but hanging onto the ball — but later left due to upper-back issues. That allowed Staten Island-native Zack Granite to get into the game, and he promptly singled to right in his first MLB postseason plate appearance.
After Severino departed, Green, David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle and Aroldis Chapman combined to give the Yankees 8.2 innings of one-run ball with four hits allowed, 13 strikeouts and three walks.
The argument du jour in statistical circles in the lead-up to the game was whether a bullpen game might make sense — especially with how commanding the Yankees relievers are as a unit. Basically, the team unwittingly found out, and more than capably dug out of an early 3-0 hole.
That only took a little longer than it took the Twins to put up that many runs, by the way. Just 23 pitches into the first inning, Ervin Santana had undone all of his offense’s good will. And while the 34-year-old righty recorded six outs to Severino’s one, it’d be a hard sell to convince anyone with half a brain that he pitched any better.
Manager Paul Molitor had to have a slower hook with his de facto ace. Not only because he lacked the depth of bullpen behind his starter that Girardi had, but he also had to at the very least run Santana back out there to see if maybe it was just nerves that had him misfiring so much early. Santana routinely missed locations by feet rather than inches, to the point where Jason Castro was helpless behind the plate on pitches that were still in the zone, but nowhere near their intended target.
When the dust settled on his two innings of work, Santana had allowed four earned runs, struck out none, walked two and had thrown just 35 of 64 pitches for strikes. Only five of the 11 batters Santana faced saw first-pitch strikes, and all night it felt like the righty was a dentist new to his craft. He didn’t exude his usually cool demeanor on the mound, and while he only pitched two frames, they stretched well over an hour in a game that just missed the four-hour mark overall.
Santana’s tandem partner Jose Berrios only did marginally better, as he fanned four batters in three innings of three-run ball, but also fell prey to the omnipotent Judge, whose two-run homer pushed a one-run game to a three-run game in the fourth inning.
By that point, it could have just as well felt like a 10-run lead.
Indeed, the Twins simply ran out of gas. The little engine that could ran out of steam, and it’s by no means a mark of failure on a team that way, way surpassed the expectations of even the most generous pundits or the most ardent fans. No team has ever made the postseason after losing 100 games in the previous season.
Some nights you make history; some nights you are history. Unfortunately for the Twins, both were true on Tuesday night — and also early Wednesday morning.
Unlike 2015, this should be a team on the upswing moving into next year. See you all at Target Field in a few months.