Tuesday’s opening game of the playoffs should have been different.
The Minnesota Twins were the higher seed, while the Houston Astros limped in with a sub-.500 record. The Twins had Cy Young candidate Kenta Maeda on the mound. The team was an MLB-best 24-7 at home, and the Astros were a league-worst 9-23 on the road.
And yet they lost 4-1 because they could not capitalize on the opportunities they were afforded. The Twins wasted a scoreless outing from their ace pitcher and failed to capitalize early offensively. Now they find themselves on the brink of elimination, and as a franchise they’ve lost 17 straight playoff games in a row.
“Today, in such a tight situation, anything that you’re not going to execute is going to come back to bite you,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “That’s what happened in today’s game.”
The most notable statistic in the Twins’ 4-1 loss wasn’t Jorge Polanco’s fielding error in the ninth inning; it was Minnesota going 0-7 with runners in scoring position.
Byron Buxton came up for the team’s second at-bat of the game and lined a single. The Twins desperately depend on Buxton’s speed in both fielding and base running, and once he got on base, he almost immediately stole second. Zack Grienke issued walks to both Max Kepler and Nelson Cruz, and with one out and the bases loaded, Minnesota had the potential to break the game open and put the Astros behind early.
Enter Eddie Rosario. He lined out to the first baseman on a 2-0 count for the second out. If Cruz had a bigger lead at first, it could have been an unfortunate double play.
Bases loaded with one out and Houston gets out unscathed, keeping the game scoreless.
“We really felt like we were going to get [Greinke,]” Ryan Jeffers said. “Up and down the lineup we were putting together really good [at bats,] we weren’t swinging at all the pitches he wanted us to swing at, it just wasn’t falling our way.”
While Minnesota’s offense got a run from a Cruz double in the third, Maeda was the star of the show for the first five innings of the game. He allowed two hits and zero runs on 91 pitches in his outing.
His veteran mindset was on display in the fourth inning. Maeda got into a bases-loaded jam, allowing a walk, a single, then another walk to bring up Josh Reddick. Although he was in a jam, he slowed the game down, bringing Jeffers over for a mound visit. He got Reddick to swing through strike three and end the inning without allowing a run.
“He finds himself in these spots where he limits damage so well,” Baldelli said. “He got us right there in the middle of the game and we had a chance to win the game.
“It was a winning effort. If we get the job done and find a way to get a few across, make the plays, Kenta certainly did his part today.”
Greinke settled in after the rocky first. Houston manager Dusty Baker, though, did not let him stay settled in the game for too long. Greinke exited the game after the fourth inning and his replacement, Framber Valdez, didn’t look strong early. Valdez walked the first two batters he faced. That brought up the top of Minnesota’s order to potentially do some damage with no outs.
Buxton struck out. Kepler flied out to left, preventing the runners from advancing. Cruz hit a ground ball to third base, and Bregman got the ball to first for the third out.
At that point after the fifth inning, it was 0-6 with runners in scoring position. After the error opened the flood gates in the ninth inning, Minnesota needed three runs in one inning to tie it and extend the game. Two singles with one out gave pinch hitter Willians Astudillo a chance to give the Twins at least one hit with someone in scoring position. Instead, he increased the number by one to end the game on a double play.
Minnesota needs to take advantage of opportunities to advance in the playoffs. Wednesday’s game is now a do-or-die situation. If Jose Berrios has a decent outing, the team needs to get run support behind him. That will all come down to getting hits in the clutch situations, especially with runners in scoring position.