Twins show heart with late rally, but fall short in ALDS G1

October 8th, 2023

HOUSTON -- For all the streak-busting and drought-breaking these Twins did before, the scene Saturday afternoon  looked awfully familiar for a while: A Minnesota team finding itself outclassed by a more experienced team under the brightest lights.

Until it didn’t.

Of course, Royce Lewis was in the middle of it all, crushing a solo homer to go back to back with Jorge Polanco’s three-run blast as Minnesota roared back from a lifeless start with a four-run seventh inning. It might not have been enough to save the Twins from a 6-4 loss to the Astros in Game 1 of the American League Division Series on Saturday, but they flipped a switch and found that fight -- and that, too, might be something different about these Twins.

“I think we know who we are as a team,” Ryan Jeffers said. “We know we can hang with whoever. I don’t think we’re coming out of this game with our tails between our legs and scared of what happened today. I think we hung in there pretty well. We fought back. We got some bigtime outs.”

But still, the Twins have a tall task ahead of them. In all best-of-five postseason series, Game 1 winners have gone on to take the series 105 of 148 times (71%). In Division Series with the current 2-2-1 format, teams that have won Game 1 at home have advanced 36 of 50 times (72%).

If the Twins are going to beat the odds, it’s likely going to involve a healthy dose of Lewis, who continued to announce his arrival on the national stage with his third homer of the playoffs, already one shy of Kirby Puckett’s club record for most in a single postseason.

And unlike so many of those playoff teams that came before, these Twins went down swinging.

“We’re never out of a game, right?” said Carlos Correa, who went 2-for-4 with a single and a double. “We were down five runs and then we made it a one-run game. That says a lot about this team and the lineup we have. Tomorrow, we have to capitalize early.”

Past teams might have folded after they missed three great opportunities against an iffy Justin Verlander in the early innings before the future Hall of Famer settled down. They might have shrank away after the Astros mounted another two-run rally in the fifth, or after Yordan Alvarez crushed his second majestic blast in the seventh.

Instead, the Twins applied pressure with that big seventh, and did not let up. Jeffers and Correa seized back the momentum when it again started to slip away in the bottom of the frame, catching José Abreu napping with a spinning throw and sneaky tag to throw him out on what the veteran clearly thought would be an easy advance on a wild pitch.

“I'm not going to say we took their best punch,” Emilio Pagán said. “They've done a lot as a unit -- they've accomplished a ton. But you look towards the end of the sixth inning where Verlander threw six [shutout], Jose Altuve hits a leadoff homer, Alvarez has a homer. You would think we're down a lot more than we were. To be within a baserunner from tying it, shows the character of this team.”

The rosy way to look at this result is that the Twins threw one of their depth starters -- Bailey Ober -- against Houston ace and future Hall of Famer Verlander and came within a few timely hits of tying the game, with Minnesota’s ace, Pablo López, tabbed to right the ship in Game 2.

On the other hand, as Correa said, the Twins do need to capitalize early -- and build off what they found in the late innings on Saturday to apply even more pressure on Sunday than they did with their 1-for-12 performance with runners in scoring position in Game 1.

“I think we showed what we can do,” Jeffers said. “A little too little, a little too late, but I think you turn the page, you move on, you take the positives of what came from today.”

Three times, the Twins had a man on second with fewer than two outs against a shaky Verlander in the first three innings, and each time they had their rally extinguished: on a pair of double plays on center-cut fastballs and a baserunning mishap by Edouard Julien that saw him tagged out between second and third following a leadoff double.

And later, after the Twins wrested the momentum back from the Astros with the back-to-back homers by Polanco and Lewis in the seventh that closed the gap to 5-4, they kept forcing the issue with Max Kepler’s two-out double behind that to put the tying run on base before Alex Kirilloff struck out to end the inning.

One inning later, they had another prime opportunity when Correa doubled to lead off the eighth and advanced to third on a wild pitch -- but Matt Wallner, Jeffers and Willi Castro couldn’t find one more hit.

“This is part of baseball,” Castro said. “Stuff like that is going to happen. I just think we didn't start off with the energy that we brought in the seventh.”

It should help that Lewis has continued his national coming-out party these playoffs.

Lewis’ homer off a Héctor Neris fastball in the seventh tied the rookie with Gary Gaetti and Greg Gagne (both from 1987) for second-most homers in a single postseason by a Twins player, with three -- and Lewis has already matched that total in three playoff games. He’s only behind Kirby Puckett, who went deep four times in 1991.

“I don’t look at it like that,” Lewis said. “I look at it like I’m trying to win a World Series with this team.”

But it’s that kind of jolt that Lewis can bring that can help the Twins bring that fight from pitch one on Sunday -- now that they’ve shown themselves and the world that they’ve got it in them.

“There's a remedy for it: You get some baserunners on base and whack a three-run homer and hit another double, and it's over,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “That's how fast it happens. Just like the last series we played was something that our team hasn't done in a while, and then all of a sudden, it happens.”