Maeda joins Johan in Twins postseason lore

September 30th, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS -- When took the mound for his first playoff start in four years, he was pitching with so much redemption on the line -- personal and otherwise.

He was pitching for his status after being shunted to the bullpen by the Dodgers for the last three postseasons. He was pitching for his pride after three ineffective playoff starts as a rookie in 2016. He was pitching for revenge after losing the '17 World Series to these Astros, many of whom remained in the starting lineup on Tuesday.

He was pitching for a win-starved fan base that has endured an inglorious playoff losing streak over 16 long years, spanning five division championships but no breakthrough wins.

He pitched plenty well enough with five scoreless innings. His offense, defense and bullpen couldn't finish off his gem in the Twins' 4-1 loss to the Astros in Game 1 of the American League Wild Card Series at Target Field.

"It’s been a while since the last time I started in the postseason, and there’s a lot of pressure during the postseason," Maeda said through interpreter Daichi Sekizaki. "I did feel myself being under pressure."

Perhaps it was all that pressure that finally burst out of Maeda's visage in the fourth inning, when he loaded the bases with a single and two walks -- his first multiwalk inning as a member of the Twins -- and wriggled out of the jam by striking out Josh Reddick, a key cog in the most strikeout-averse lineup in MLB.

After Reddick swung through a 1-2 slider, preserving the 1-0 lead the Twins had built in the third, the normally stoic Maeda unleashed a primal scream into the chilly Minnesota afternoon, paused, then screamed once more before striding back toward the dugout.

"The strikeout to Reddick, that moment, I really wanted to get a strikeout," Maeda said. "That’s a strikeout-must situation. To be able to get that, my emotions overflowed."

Maeda came back in the next frame and retired Martín Maldonado, George Springer and Jose Altuve on 10 pitches, capping his 91-pitch, five-inning outing on a high. He allowed only two hits -- a Michael Brantley double in the first and a Kyle Tucker single in that fourth -- though he walked a season-high three batters. He struck out five.

It was that slider that did the most damage against the Astros. Maeda threw it on 48 of his 91 pitches, his highest percentage of sliders thrown in a start this season. He drew seven swings and misses with the offering and used it to record all five of his strikeouts. It was no surprise that was Maeda's game plan -- Houston's lineup entered the game with the fourth-worst wOBA against sliders in MLB this season.

"He finds himself in these spots where he limits damage so well," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "He was able to do that again today. He got us right there in the middle of the game. We had a chance to win the game. He's a competitor. He never gives in. He makes good pitches when he has to. That's what he did."

The five innings marked the longest playoff start of Maeda's career. His appearance marked the first scoreless appearance in the postseason by a Twins starter since Johan Santana in Game 1 of the 2004 AL Division Series at Yankee Stadium. That was, incidentally, the last playoff game Minnesota won before this 17-game losing streak began.

Maeda did everything he could to snap that. But the offense only mustered four hits and a run against Zack Greinke and Framber Valdez, while the defense made two costly miscues, leading to walking in the go-ahead run in the ninth.

If Maeda does get another playoff start this season, it will be because the club broke its losing streak without a slump-busting effort from its ace. He did all he could -- and on Tuesday, it still wasn't enough.

"What a start he gave us, what an outing," Romo said. "It’s one of those games where we as a group really, really wish we could have just done a little bit more for him just so he could get more of a pat on the back, more of a reward for the job that he did. He’s been that way since I’ve known him. I’ve known him for a few years now, and he’s just extremely competitive and he shows up in big moments."