The standings could not have broken better for the Minnesota Twins. Over and over, they have thrived in the regular season but fallen to the Yankees in the playoffs. This time, for their first-round opponent, the Twins drew the Houston Astros, the first American League playoff team with a losing record in almost 40 years.
The Astros wore orange jerseys at Target Field on Tuesday, but the Twins must have seen the foreboding gray and navy of the Yankees. In the opener of the new best-of-three playoff round on Tuesday, the Twins unraveled in the ninth inning and lost, 4-1, for their 17th consecutive playoff defeat.
The streak — which was already the longest of its kind in major league history — extends to 2004. All but three of the losses had come to the Yankees, until Tuesday, when the Astros, who were 29-31 in the truncated regular season, pushed Minnesota to the brink of another early exit — not that the Twins’ players think much of the painful past.
“We have a lot of guys in the clubhouse, but I would say a vast majority of them don’t know the Twins’ history at all,” Manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I’m sure the fan base does, but the players don’t. So I don’t think there’s really anything to talk about. I think if I brought that up, they’d look at me funny.”
The Twins traded last winter for Kenta Maeda, who pitched well in the last four postseasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He did so again on Tuesday but was gone after needing 91 pitches in five shutout innings.
The Twins’ fourth reliever, Sergio Romo, got a ground ball to shortstop with two out, two on and the score tied, 1-1, in the ninth. Jorge Polanco fielded it and flipped to second for a force play that should have ended the inning — but the sidearm throw sailed wide, pulling Luis Arraez off second base and loading the bases.
“It’s a play we have to make,” Baldelli said. “It’s a big moment in the game, and we weren’t able to make it. We have to kind of wipe what we saw today.”
Romo then walked Jose Altuve to force in the go-ahead run, and Michael Brantley singled off Caleb Thielbar to drive in two more. Framber Valdez silenced the Twins in the ninth with his fifth scoreless inning in relief of Zack Greinke.
In Romo, the Twins had a proven playoff performer in the mold of Maeda; Romo won three championship rings with the San Francisco Giants and closed out the 2012 World Series. But even he could not help stop the streak.
“This is why I’m here,” Romo said. “This is what we fight for — this is what we work for — to be in moments like I had an opportunity to be in today, and I need to answer that call. We lost as a team today, but this team’s got a lot of fight. Watch out for us tomorrow.”
Elsewhere at Target Field, the Astros’ manager, Dusty Baker, took postgame questions on Zoom with music thumping in the background. The Astros — whose 2017 title was marred by the sign-stealing scandal that exploded last winter — were letting loose.
“It is loud — it should be loud,” Baker said. “It hasn’t been loud in a while. Let ’em party, let ’em enjoy themselves, savor the victory, breathe in what it feels like and maintain that till tomorrow.”
The Astros, who won at least 100 games in each of the last three seasons, are hardly the same juggernaut. They lost their two best starters from last year’s A.L. championship team, as Gerrit Cole signed with the Yankees in free agency and Justin Verlander succumbed to an injury that requires Tommy John surgery. Several top relievers have also gotten hurt or signed elsewhere, and the slugger Yordan Alvarez — last year’s rookie of the year — played just two games before having season-ending knee surgery.
Houston’s pitching is so unsteady that, even after Game 1, Baker still could not name a starter for Game 2. He could use Lance McCullers Jr. or Jose Urquidy — who have both won World Series starts — but in Greinke and Valdez, he needed two of his better starters to win on Tuesday.
The Astros’ offense, too, is not as intimidating as the one that beat the Yankees in the 2017 and 2019 A.L. Championship Series. Houston extended the contract of first baseman Yuli Gurriel on Tuesday, but Gurriel had a miserable season, hitting .232 with six home runs and a meager .274 on-base percentage.
Altuve, a three-time batting champion and a former most valuable player, hit just .219 this year, and the star third baseman Alex Bregman slumped to .242. The team scored fewer runs than also-rans like the Los Angeles Angels and Baltimore Orioles, but James Click, the new general manager, dismissed the 60-game sample.
“Some guys, you can say it’s bad luck; some guys, it’s still trying to figure out how exactly to play, given everything else that’s going on in the world,” Click said Tuesday. “We’re all dealing with a lot more stress than we’re used to dealing with. All of that can affect your play on the field — and it’s not lost on any of us that normally we’d have another 102 games to go.”
On Tuesday, the Astros assured themselves of at least two more games. But the Twins have no more losses to spare this season, and 17 in a row to haunt their fans.