MINNEAPOLIS -- If the Twins would have made two defensive plays or connected on one big swing, this would all be a completely different story -- one of breaking an inglorious losing streak, one of the triumphant pitching performance that this franchise had long awaited in the playoffs.
Kenta Maeda gave the Twins five scoreless innings, the ace outing this team needed. Minnesota took a one-run lead into the seventh with a bullpen that had been among MLB’s best all year.
All that turned on two plays, leading to an all-too-familiar ending -- a 4-1 defeat to Houston in Game 1 of the American League Wild Card Series on Tuesday afternoon at Target Field.
Marwin Gonzalez couldn’t handle a short-hop grounder at third base in the seventh inning, and the Astros took advantage to tie the game on George Springer’s RBI knock. In the ninth, Jorge Polanco threw wide of second on a routine force play that would have ended the inning, and Houston made it hurt with a game-winning three-run rally capped by a bases-loaded walk and Michael Brantley’s two-run single.
“We realize we're probably a play or two from being in the clubhouse and being very satisfied with what we saw,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “But we have to play a complete game to earn that and to win a ballgame.”
It was far from that complete effort, as Houston’s late comeback ran Minnesota’s playoff losing streak to a record 17 games, the longest in the history of the four major North American professional sports. The Twins, riding the high of a second straight AL Central championship, are one loss from elimination.
The Twins’ bullpen entered the game ranked second in MLB in wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs. Minnesota’s defense entered the game with 20 errors in the regular season, tied for fewest in the Majors.
For much of this season, what was expected to be one of MLB’s best offenses scuffled, and the Twins' pitching staff and defense carried the club to victory. On Tuesday, that offense again stalled in the big moments aside from Nelson Cruz’s third-inning RBI double, stranding the bases loaded in the first and a pair in the fifth.
That put too much pressure on the bullpen and the defense, and they, too, gave way.
“It’s a tough pill to swallow,” said Sergio Romo, who was charged with three unearned runs and became the first pitcher to walk in the go-ahead run in the ninth inning of a postseason game. “You’ve got to give credit to them for not giving up. They obviously went out and fought it out themselves also so well on their end.”
Tyler Duffey, the Twins’ bullpen ace with a 1.88 ERA in the regular season, entered a 1-0 game in the seventh inning having retired 17 of his last 19 hitters. He got Yuli Gurriel to ground out and Carlos Correa to strike out. Josh Reddick kept the inning alive with a single, and two pitches later, Martín Maldonado chopped a ground ball to third base.
It wasn’t particularly hard-hit, with an exit velocity of 79.2 mph. It only carried an expected batting average of .370, per Statcast. The sure-handed Josh Donaldson would have been there to glove it, had he not been sidelined by another right calf injury. Instead, the ball went in and out of Gonzalez’s glove, and he couldn’t recover in time to throw Maldonado out and end the inning.
Two pitches later, Springer’s single to center tied the game. The Twins had been 29-1 in the regular season when leading after seven innings -- but they couldn’t quite get there.
“Today, in a tight situation, anything you’re not going to execute is going to come back to bite you,” Baldelli said.
In the ninth, Gurriel and Correa punched a pair of bloop singles off Romo to start the frame, but the veteran reliever appeared to pitch himself out of trouble with two weak balls in the air and a grounder to short -- except on that last play, Polanco flung the ball into the dirt well wide of Luis Arraez covering the second-base bag to load the bases with two outs.
"Of course the guys are frustrated,” Baldelli said. “I didn't see anything overly unusual from where I was watching. … Of course, it's a play that we have to make. It's a big moment in the game. We weren't able to make it.”
Jose Altuve worked a full count against Romo, and the veteran’s payoff pitch -- a fastball, not his signature slider -- missed high. Ball four. Astros took the lead.
“I’ve got to be better,” Romo said. “I’ve got to attack the zone more. I’ve been kind of struggling with attacking, falling behind hitters. Then when I get the opportunity to put them away, I haven’t done that. These are moments. This is why I’m here. This is what we’re fighting for.”
"When you're playing in a one-run ballgame and you go to your bullpen and start bringing those guys in, we didn't give ourselves probably enough room to work,” Baldelli said. “We want to play a more complete game.”
The Twins will get one more shot at that on Wednesday. If they find that complete game, they’ll get another on Thursday. That’s what it will take to finally break this losing streak -- but Minnesota couldn’t find that in Game 1.
“We lost as a team today, but this team’s got a lot of fight,” Romo said. “Just watch out for us tomorrow. Watch out.”