MINNEAPOLIS -- Like all those other Minnesota teams that came before this one, these 2020 Twins were supposed to be different.
Fueled by the biggest free-agent signing in franchise history in Josh Donaldson and a blockbuster offseason trade for Kenta Maeda, the Twins emphatically proclaimed the World Series as their preseason goal on the first day of Spring Training and they looked to have the inside track to a deep playoff run on the back of what looked, on paper, to be a historic offense.
That offense never materialized -- to the very end -- and these different 2020 Twins met an all-too-familiar fate.
Facing elimination in Game 2 of the American League Wild Card Series against the Astros, the promise of “Bomba Squad 2.0” faded away without a “bomba” at all in another short-lived jaunt in the playoffs. On the other side, a dinged-up and frustrated Twins lineup staggered across the finish line with only three hits and one run against an injury-depleted Houston pitching staff and fell, 3-1, failing to advance beyond their opening-round matchup for the eighth straight postseason.
"It was a tough year with an unexpected ending for us,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “We believed in ourselves, and we believed that we were capable of pretty much anything. We went out there today, we went out there yesterday, didn’t play our best baseball. That is tough to take sometimes, but that is the reality of what happened."
With seemingly everything stacked in Minnesota’s favor -- hosting a series with the best home record in baseball against a sub-.500 Astros team -- the Twins’ playoff losing streak still, improbably, rolled on. It now stands at 18 games, extending the record for the longest such streak in the four major North American professional sports.
Once again, Minnesota will have another painful offseason to build up again, get healthy -- and try to dissect what went wrong.
“We weren’t expecting this, you know?” Nelson Cruz said. “I don’t think anyone was really expecting it to end this way. I mean, like life, baseball is also tough. It’s unpredictable. So it is what it is. So we’ve got to go home and try to get better in all aspects. That’s going to include myself. I will try to get better.”
In this series, it was simple: An inexperienced Houston pitching staff -- one without Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole from last season -- held the Twins’ offense to two runs on seven hits in the two-game series. Minnesota went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position, twice stranded the bases loaded in the first inning without scoring, and got its only two runs of the series on RBI doubles by Cruz, who is now bound for free agency.
Once again, the Twins had their opportunities -- and once again, they couldn’t cash in. Cruz’s game-tying RBI double in the fifth was a brief high, but trail runner Luis Arraez was thrown out at the plate. Minnesota got leadoff walks in the seventh and eighth, but pinch-runner Byron Buxton was picked off to end the eighth inning in a one-run game.
“I don’t think the types of at-bats that we had and the number of balls we squared up, and those types of things, were what we’re used to,” Baldelli said. “Even in a year where offense was down, and in a year where we didn’t score as many runs, we probably would’ve expected to have more opportunities to come through in those opportunities more than we did.”
Remarkably, the Twins have now scored four or fewer runs in 15 consecutive postseason games, three shy of the record held by the Brooklyn Dodgers, who did it from 1916-47. It’s a streak that has followed Minnesota from the days of Shannon Stewart, Jacque Jones and Lew Ford to Joe Mauer, Torii Hunter and Justin Morneau -- and now, Cruz, Max Kepler and Luis Arraez.
At the start of the season, it would have been tough to think that this version of the Twins, too, wrote itself into that streak.
President of baseball operations Derek Falvey and general manager Thad Levine took last season’s record-setting lineup -- that of the record-breaking 307 homers -- and added a former MVP in Donaldson and beefed up the rest of the roster with playoff-tested veterans everywhere, from Rich Hill to Tyler Clippard to Alex Avila.
“I think what we did in the offseason -- to bring in a lot of talent, a lot of veteran players, leadership, that whole thing -- I really think we had a good group here,” Jake Odorizzi said. “We didn't get it done. That's obviously apparent. But I thought we would have had a better run than this, putting a game across and putting one in the win column, at least.”
Top to bottom, there was seemingly no hole in the lineup in its full form.
But there’s the catch: In its full form.
Wednesday marked exactly two months to the day since the Twins last played that full lineup: Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Donaldson, Cruz, Eddie Rosario, Mitch Garver, Arraez, Miguel Sanó and Buxton.
The next day, Donaldson failed to take the field for the second inning after straining his right calf. That started a cascading chain of injuries -- from which the Twins never fully recovered. Buxton, Donaldson, Garver, Kepler and Arraez all had stints on the injured list.
Minnesota’s team OPS dropped from .832 last season -- second in MLB -- to .743 this season, 15th in the Majors and one spot behind the rebuilding Orioles. The Twins annihilated fastballs to the tune of a .412 wOBA last season -- second in MLB -- but that mark fell to .388 this season, 12th in the big leagues. Astros pitchers threw fastballs on 115 of their 157 pitches on Wednesday.
The Twins’ refrain the whole year: Just wait until we get healthy. They never did.
It looked for a moment like the gang would finally reunite for the postseason upon Arraez’s return from injury in the final week of the regular season, but one day before his activation, Buxton took a pitch off his helmet and Donaldson re-injured his calf. Donaldson was unavailable for the Wild Card Series altogether, and Buxton didn’t start Game 2.
They’re not using that as an excuse, but it certainly didn’t help.
“That is going to happen, as well,” Baldelli said. “Sometimes, teams don’t have their entire group and still find ways to win and still find ways to play deep into the playoffs and accomplish all the things that they want -- so we still could have done that.”
As for why the Twins underperformed so much on offense? There aren’t many answers. They searched, to be sure. If they’d found something, perhaps this outcome could have been different.
“I guess we feed from the fans, that’s the only thing I can mention,” Cruz guessed. “It doesn’t matter if you play on the road or if you play at home, we all play for fans and the energy that fans bring, you can’t replace it with anything. That’s the only thing that I can mention.”
It definitely hurt in that clubhouse after the game. It hurt all the more given the unrealized expectations, the disappointment of being in this very place a year ago and the specter of marinating in the ugly streak of postseason losses through another offseason instead of being the triumphant group that finally ended it all.
Like so many Twins teams before them, they vow to come back next season all the better for this experience. Unsatisfying as it may sound, that’s all they can do, all they can control.
“It’s like the sound of everyone high-fiving and hugs, it sucks,” Tyler Duffey said. “It never doesn’t. It’s not unlike any other. Obviously, our aspirations were a lot more than what we achieved. Guys who end up back here will remember that feeling again, and come Spring Training, that’s what keeps you going.”
“I’m sure everyone’s going to grow a lot and learn a lot having gone through everything we just did,” Baldelli said. “We have a great group up there in the clubhouse, and like I said, we put a lot into it to get to this point and we gave it everything we had, and it was not enough this series.”