NEW YORK — After being announced as the Minnesota Twins’ Game 1 starter against the New York Yankees, Jose Berrios pantomimed throwing up into a trash can before getting on stage for his pregame press conference. He was anything but scared, however. He wore his hat backwards, beamed almost the entire time and gave every indication that he is ready for this moment.
“Mostly intensity of this game,” he said when asked what it was like to pitch in relief of Ervin Santana in the 2017 AL Wild Card Game, an 8-4 Twins loss. Then, unsolicited, he brought up the Puerto Rico Series last year in the very next sentence.
“I remember playing in Puerto Rico,” he said, referring to the Twins’ two-game series at Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan. “The atmosphere is different. I think it’s going to feel like this here in this ballpark. Just looking forward to that.”
At first glance, that seems impossible. The 2017 AL Wild Card Game took place in Yankee Stadium. Against the Yankees. In a win or go home game. The Puerto Rico game took place in the regular season against Cleveland.
But it was a meaningful game for Berrios. The game was played 20 minutes from his hometown of Bayamon. Puerto Rico had just been devastated by a hurricane, and an island-wide blackout occurred hours before the game.
Berrios was brilliant, striking out five hitters in seven innings in a 16-inning game that the Twins won in a walk-off. That win was their fourth in five games, but they went on to lose eight straight after it, including four in the Bronx — perhaps in part because of how emotionally draining that game was.
“When I was growing up, we always play every weekend with our family, friends, a lot of people, and we always have like music between innings, during the game,” said Berrios, emphasizing that he can adjust to his surroundings. “We get used to it.
“I already know what it’s going to be tomorrow, the atmosphere out on the field.”
The Twins are sick of hearing about their troubles with the Yankees, but they will persist so long as they continue to have trouble with them. Since beating the “Moneyball” Oakland A’s in the 2002 ALDS, Minnesota has lost 13 straight playoff games, tying an MLB record. They have played the Yankees in four series and one Wild Card game since 2002 and have won only two games.
“Our guys are very happy to be here and very excited to be playing the Yankees,” said Rocco Baldelli. “We’ve had to answer a lot of questions from people that are worried about what has happened in the past. I’ve said earlier this week, and I’ll say it again, I don’t care about what’s happened here in the past.”
He had a simple message to anxious Twins fans at home and around the country:
“Grab a drink and put your feet up and enjoy,” he said, smiling. “It’s going to be a fun series, and our players are just waiting for the first pitch. I mean, they’re ready to go.”
But nobody will relax until this team proves it can hang with the Yankees. This team is different. None of the current players were on Ron Gardenhire’s teams that dominated the AL Central but couldn’t get past the Yankees in the playoffs. Only a few of them played in the 2017 Wild Card game.
“I was talking to Tyler [Duffey] on the way over here and talking about the history the Twins and the Yankees have,” said closer Taylor Rogers, “and I was trying to figure out how to get a higher ACT score to get into college the last time these teams played.
“I know that Twins fans have a lot of memories, but we don’t. So I think we’re going in with a fresh slate, clean slate, and it’s a very positive slate.”
Rogers was drafted out of the University of Kentucky in 2012; Duffey out of Rice the same year.
“It’s funny, coming up through the minors, we weren’t even thinking about being here, other than that Wild Card game,” said Duffey. “A lot of us came up in the minors facing a lot of these guys in this lineup. A lot of the faces you see on TV and you don’t really hear so much about us, but at the end of the day, we’re all just baseball players playing baseball. I think that has been our thought process in the clubhouse at the end of the day.
“We’re going to hit a lot of homers. We’re going to score a lot of runs, and they do the same thing. So it’s just another game ultimately.”
That context is important. Jake Odorizzi reminded everyone earlier in the year that he’s a guy from St. Louis who lives in Tampa, and that the rest of the players aren’t from Minnesota. Rogers grew up in Denver. Duffey is from Houston. And many of the players are from outside the United States.
A reporter pointed out that the Twins are called the Bomba Squad, a name created by Eddie Rosario, a Puerto Rican who plays in a city that doesn’t have a massive Latin community.
“Yeah, it’s not a big Latin community city, but we’re being ourselves, we hit a lot of homers, and I think we stayed together as players,” said Miguel Sano, who is from the Dominican Republic. “You have people from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Curacao. I think that helps us be ourselves. So it’s our identity.”
“We have players from all over the world on our team,” said Baldelli. “No matter where you’re from or what you’re doing or where you go in the off-season, it doesn’t matter. Our Latino players have created a wonderful identity for our team, and we have a group that the best part about it is we don’t think about it in terms of we have our players who are from Latin America, we have our American born players — we just have a team.”
So as you sit back and have a drink (or six) while watching the game, remember, these guys aren’t haunted by the ghosts of Twins past. The Yankees aren’t lurking beneath their beds. Baldelli grew up a Red Sox fan in Rhode Island and spent most of his professional life as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays. Kepler is from Germany. Berrios is a man from Puerto Rico pitching in the Bronx who just wants you to be as happy to watch the game as he is to pitch in it.
“It’s going to be good,” he promised. “It’s going to be fun.”