'We've got to punch back': Twins' path still clear after Game 3 loss

October 11th, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS -- All afternoon, a sold-out Target Field crowd packed to the gills longed for its chance to erupt in ways hitherto unseen around these parts this deep into October.

They never got that opportunity. And now that the Twins’ backs are against the wall, they might only get one more shot at unleashing all that pent-up energy -- they’ll need it, too.

The Astros took that over-capacity crowd of 41,017 out of the picture rather quickly on Tuesday with a four-run first inning against Twins starter Sonny Gray, and the home team remained deflated throughout the afternoon as its offense fell flat in a 9-1 loss to the Astros in Game 3 of the American League Division Series. Minnesota now faces elimination for the first time this season.

“I think we can feel the energy, we feel the excitement in the stadium,” Ryan Jeffers said. “I hate that we weren’t able to give them something more to cheer about.”

If the Twins are to advance to the AL Championship Series for the first time since 2002, they’ll need to emerge victorious in two consecutive must-win games -- one at Target Field, and one at Minute Maid Park.

There’s really not much in terms of positives for the Twins to take away from a game that pushed them to the brink of elimination -- one in which they were outscored by their largest margin in two months, outhit 14-3 and outhomered 4-0. They have no choice but to rinse it away quickly.

“It'd be tougher if we were going home,” Emilio Pagán said. “They flexed their muscles today. ... It's up to us tomorrow to get it and force it back to Houston. We're still in a good spot. Series isn't over. That's a good thing.”

In all best-of-five postseason series, teams leading 2-1 after Game 3 have gone on to win the series 69 of 96 times (72%). In Division Series with the current 2-2-1 format, teams ahead 2-1 and playing Game 4 on the road have advanced 21 of 32 times (66%), with 17 of those 21 winners closing out the series in Game 4.

The numbers are against the Twins, to be sure. But there’s still a reasonable path for them to get this done, and as has been the case all season (and postseason), that path runs through the pitching staff.

With the Astros not willing to use Justin Verlander on short rest, they’ve exhausted their core of starting pitchers and will need to cobble together a pitching plan behind José Urquidy, who has 12 games of postseason experience, but who has greatly struggled to a 5.29 ERA and career-worst strikeout and walk rates this year. Perhaps it’ll also involve rookie J.P. France, who pitched to a 5.84 ERA from August to the end of the year.

The Twins will be able to counter with a fully rested Joe Ryan, who had his own struggles down the stretch but was in contention for the All-Star team before a midseason groin injury derailed his campaign. Still, Ryan finished a whisker shy of his first career 200-strikeout season. He hasn’t pitched in the playoffs, with his last start having come on Sept. 29 in Colorado.

“I feel definitely rested with this extra time,” Ryan said. “I think we've just put in a lot of work with coaches, working with [pitching coach Pete Maki] and [pitching development specialist] Matt Daniels, just getting everything kind of locked in and getting the pitches where we want to, working in the training room and just getting the body right.”

The Twins also went to painstaking lengths to have their bullpen as rested as possible for Wednesday's must-win Game 4, using Kenta Maeda and Bailey Ober to finish Tuesday’s loss. That means nearly all of their high-leverage arms -- Jhoan Duran, Brock Stewart and Caleb Thielbar -- would be able to pitch rested in Game 4 and a possible Game 5.

If they can get past Game 4, their season hopes will lie with ace Pablo López in Game 5 -- and that’s a situation in which they’d be very confident.

But no matter what happens on the mound, the Twins will need to show their crowd -- and themselves -- that their supply of clutch hits hasn’t dried up.

Even before any hitters stepped to the plate, the crowd was primed after Johan Santana delivered the ceremonial first pitch to Joe Mauer. That mass of fans intently reacted to every pitch in the first inning -- until Alex Kirilloff committed a key error on what could have been an inning-ending double-play grounder and José Abreu made it hurt with a three-run homer to give Houston a 4-0 lead.

Minnesota had every opportunity to put more pressure on the Astros and get the crowd back in it, but the home team simply couldn’t capitalize against right-hander Cristian Javier.

The Twins fully had Javier on the ropes in the fifth, walking the bases loaded as the crowd swelled with anticipation, but Max Kepler and Royce Lewis both struck out as deflated fans sunk back to their seats. One inning later, it was the same story, as Houston shortstop Jeremy Peña extinguished any hopes for a continued rally with a diving stop that turned into a double play to hold the Twins at one run.

Jeffers hit that ball at 110.7 mph. It was the only one of seven balls he put in play at 110-plus mph this season that didn’t end in a hit. So it went for the Twins, who finished 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position.

“When you go into an elimination game, you’ve got to be ready to do whatever is possible to help the team win,” Carlos Correa said. “Everybody's available. All the arms are available. And we’ve got to do a better job with people on base if we want to stay alive.

“We’re going to do that tomorrow.”

They have no choice.

“We've got to punch,” Lewis said. “They punched. We've got to punch back.”