'Pen keeps Twins within striking distance in gritty Game 4 effort

October 12th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- The term “mixed emotions” has become so cliché in sports.

It’s moments like the Twins experienced on Wednesday night, being eliminated from the postseason with a 3-2 loss to the Astros is Game 4 of the American League Division Series at Target Field, that prompt a slew of conversations to involve the words “mixed emotions.”

Cliché, yes. But in this case, there was no other way to describe what this Minnesota team had just gone through.

Rarely are elimination games left to the bullpen.

Starter Joe Ryan hadn’t faced hitters since Sept. 29 based on how the lineup of starters shook out for the first five playoff games. The goal was for him to go out, empty the tank for a few innings and turn it over to the ‘pen. After just two innings, allowing one run on a solo homer by Michael Brantley, manager Rocco Baldelli determined it was time to call on his relief corps.

“Truthfully, in an elimination game like we were in today, there's no need to ride your starter,” Baldelli said.

It worked.

Brock Stewart tossed a scoreless frame. Caleb Thielbar was the only reliever to experience a hiccup, giving up a two-run blast to José Abreu in his two-thirds of an inning. Chris Paddack shined, tossing 2 1/3 innings, allowing just one hit with four strikeouts. Griffin Jax added a scoreless frame and Jhoan Duran kept runs off the board for two more innings.

The problem was that Minnesota’s offense couldn’t support the pitching staff, scoring just three runs over the last 18 innings.

“We turned the ball over to the bullpen and outside of one swing, they threw the ball amazing,” catcher Ryan Jeffers said. “This game sucks sometimes.”

And so, the mix of emotions began.


It almost seems wrong for positive emotions to come out after such a gut-wrenching loss, but the Twins’ clubhouse knew the pitching staff deserved tremendous credit for keeping the team in the game until the final out.

“I’m impressed. I’m not surprised,” Jeffers said. “They’ve been kind of the backbone of this team all year.”

The pitching staff as a whole has been the brightest spot of this Minnesota roster all season long. The unit ended the regular season ranked first of all 30 Major League teams in strikeouts per nine innings (9.67), third in FIP (3.89) and tied for fifth in ERA (3.87).

“We have the best pitching staff in baseball,” Paddack said. “We have the best pitching staff in the postseason. I’ll argue that with anybody.”


In the middle of the row of lockers on the left side of the Twins’ clubhouse sat Thielbar, who couldn’t hide the pain he felt after this loss. Teammates reminded him that because of one pitch to Abreu -- a pitch he thought was good and said he would throw again 100 out of 100 times -- this doesn’t fall on his shoulders. But Thielbar couldn’t help but feel any other way.

I feel terrible right now,” he said. “I know it’s a team game, but I feel like I cost us a chance at Game 5 today. I just feel like I let down my teammates, the clubhouse staff, everyone, fans, everyone. It feels terrible. I don’t really know what to say at this point.”


But just a few lockers down, Paddack was trying to balance his disappointment with his pure elation from overcoming Tommy John surgery to have the performance he did on baseball’s biggest stage.

It was mid-May last season when Paddack underwent the procedure. It took him until the final week of September this year for him to get back with his big league team. The usual starter was limited to a bullpen role in this short time and he proved he could quickly become a weapon.

Paddack allowed just one hit to go with four strikeouts, while keeping the Astros at just three runs as Minnesota chipped away in the sixth with Edouard Julien’s first career postseason homer.

“You can’t write up what I’ve just been through any better,” Paddack said. “I’ve busted my butt for the past 16 months to get back in this clubhouse with these guys. To have some success in the postseason just makes me excited that all my hard work paid off.”

And when Paddack gets back in the rotation in 2024, he’s looking forward to taking the lessons that he learned in his short time in the ‘pen this season.

“I really do think it’s going to change my career,” Paddack said.

But every time Paddack expressed happiness or gratitude, he quickly was humbled with inner frustration of the reality that his team had lost -- the perfect microcosm for what was happening around him.

The Twins were proud to have won their first postseason game since 2004, while advancing past the first round for the first time since ‘02. But sometimes, you can feel many things at once. And it was clear that pride, pain and optimism permeated the clubhouse, especially the pitching staff.

“There’s so many mixed emotions,” Paddack said. “We’re excited for the future. Obviously, a lot of emotions in the clubhouse tonight, just because we had high expectations for ourselves and just came up a little short.”