When they’re on the road, Twins relievers don’t hike to the bullpen until the middle of the first inning, so Trevor Hildenberger was still in the visitors clubhouse as Tuesday’s wild-card game began. It wasn’t long before he was whooping it up with a few other stragglers.
“It was awesome to watch [Brian] Dozier’s homer on TV,” Hildenberger said. “Off the bat, I thought it was 30 rows back. … [The Twins’ three-run first inning] was exactly the start we were looking for.”
They didn’t get the finish they wanted, though, and the season ended abruptly with an 8-4 loss to the Yankees. Afterward, Twins manager Paul Molitor addressed the team, telling them how proud he was of all they had accomplished in 2017.
“Mollie came in and tried to remind the guys, ‘Hold your head up high. This is a good ballclub,’ ” first baseman Joe Mauer said. “It’s one of my favorite clubhouses I’ve been a part of. I wish we could keep moving forward.”
Moving forward is exactly what the Twins did in 2017, and while it was difficult in the immediate aftermath to remember that their missed opportunity in Yankee Stadium was a reward, not a punishment, the players quickly ratified their manager’s opinion. Players embraced each other, thanked each other and saluted each other, and like Mauer, spoke of their appreciation for what they had accomplished together.
“I joined a 100-loss team that truly believed it could win 100 this year. That’s the level of confidence we had in each other,” said 34-year-old catcher Chris Gimenez. “I would do anything to come back. This has been one of the funnest years of my career. This is the kind of year that makes an old guy feel young.”
It’s the young guys who started to feel old, or at least develop the confidence of veterans, that made the biggest difference. Byron Buxton developed from a good-field, no-hit outfielder into a consistent offensive contributor and world-class defender. Left fielder Eddie Rosario cut his strikeout rate from 25.7 percent to 18.0, increased his power from 10 to 27 home runs, and finally matched his production to his fearlessness. Shortstop Jorge Polanco rewarded Molitor’s unwavering faith in him with by batting .316 after Aug. 1.
The Twins scored 815 runs, the most they’ve managed since 2009, and the fourth most in the AL. They used only 17 position players to do it, too; no team has used fewer since World War II. That’s a reflection of stability (and health) that served them well this season.
“It feels like we’re just getting started, doesn’t it?” Dozier said. “You look around this room, how many guys are going to keep getting better? Their best seasons haven’t happened yet, and we’re already a playoff team.”
They are, though their adventure in New York illustrated the work they still need to do. When the Twins stunned Luis Severino with a pair of first-inning homers and three quick runs, Yankees manager Joe Girardi quickly went to his bullpen to get 26 outs. They did it, allowing only one run.
The Twins just don’t have that pitching depth yet, so when Ervin Santana faltered, giving up four runs in two innings, Molitor turned to another starter, Jose Berrios, who was only marginally better. The Yankees scored in each of the first four innings, and the Twins only briefly threatened again.
“It was just kind of a struggle from the start. A little bit inauspicious to walk the leadoff man after you score three” in the first inning, Molitor said. “[Yankee shortstop Didi] Gregorius gets a 3-2 pitch in his wheelhouse and all of a sudden, everything you worked for in the top of the first has vanished. … We didn’t put up a zero until the fifth inning.”
The Twins used a franchise-record 36 pitchers this season, an reflection of how hard they looked for quality arms. They found a few; Berrios made the sort of strides that demonstrate why he’s long been projected for stardom, raising his strikeout rate to 8.59 per nine innings, the highest by a Twins starter since Francisco Liriano in 2010. And Hildenberger rapidly earned Molitor’s trust in the late innings; the Twins were 18-7 in games he pitched after Aug. 1.
“I definitely feel like I belong here now. I can build on all the stuff I learned, like a lot of guys in here,” Hildenberger said. “Pitchers and catchers report in 134 days. I’m already looking forward to it.”