The Twins didn’t play on Thursday and it became an off day of considerable optimism. The Chicago White Sox, Oakland and the New York Yankees lost, putting the Twins one game in front in the American League Central and holding the AL’s No. 2 seed.
In this strangest of baseball seasons, only 60 games that allow amazing twists, No. 58 on Friday took a disturbing turn for the home team at Target Field that went beyond a 7-2 loss to the Cincinnati Reds.
Josh Donaldson left after the first inning because of a “cramp’’ in his right calf. Last time he injured that area, “day-to-day’’ became 33 days out of the lineup.
Much later, Byron Buxton, on a streak of avoiding injuries, was hit in the helmet by a 91 miles-per-hour fastball by Lucas Sims in the eighth. Buxton was on the ground near the plate for a minute, then left the game. He has dealt with concussions in the past.
If those events didn’t make things dreary enough for a team four days away from opening baseball’s pandemic-driven, 16-team tournament, Jose Berrios was the starter and went in reverse from what had been a brief, promising run of pitching.
Berrios had lowered his ERA from 4.75 to 3.72 in four September starts, and he seemed ready for excellence in setting down the Reds with a pair of strikeouts in the first inning Friday.
Then, the Twins loaded the bases with one out against Tyler Mahle, a starter from the back of the Reds’ rotation. Buxton struck out, and then Miguel Sano continued a current, wretched stretch with another one.
The Twins did have a 1-0 lead through three. And then Mike Moustakas unloaded a two-run homer to center off Berrios in the fourth. Freddy Galvis led off the fifth with a home run to right, and a couple of more ripped base hits made it 4-1 for the Reds.
This five-inning clunker was the first time in his 12 starts in 2020 that Berrios had surrendered more than one home run. He finished the regular season 5-4 with a 4.00 ERA, not very impressive in a mini-season in which hitting has fallen to absurdly feeble levels.
Berrios’ inability to come up with a big effort also left the Twins in this predicament: They are now one game ahead of the fading White Sox and surging Cleveland, with all teams having two left.
The only good news the Twins received Friday was that every thing fell in place for the Reds to clinch a spot in the National League playoffs. That could mean they don’t have to face Trevor Bauer as scheduled Sunday, which could have been an impossible task without Donaldson, with Nelson Cruz banged up, with Buxton’s status to be determined and with slumps all over the lineup card.
Berrios is 26 now. He can’t become a free agent until 2023, and with fewer than 700 innings, there should be plenty of ammunition remaining in his right arm, but it seems as if Twins followers have been stating this as far back as the wild-card run in 2017:
“Berrios really has to be good right now for the Twins to accomplish anything important.’’
He was recalled from Class AAA Rochester to join the Twins’ rotation on May 13, 2017, and hasn’t missed a start in that time. Friday was his 115th regular-season start without more than an extra day here and there.
He pitched 192 innings in 2018 and 200 innings in 2019, and the final stats were good, but admit it, Twinkie Territory: You’ve wanted more, because of the early thought Berrios had a chance to be the right-handed version of Johan Santana.
A year ago, Berrios snapped out of his annual August slump and finished with four out of five strong starts. The Twins then took their 101 wins to the Bronx to play the 103-win Yankees.
Berrios was the Game 1 starter and the cry could be heard from Minnesota: “We need you right now, Jose.’’
He took a 2-0 lead into the third, the Yankees scored three runs, and he wound up going four innings in an 8-4 loss. The Yankees went forward to a three-game sweep, putting their postseason winning streak at 13 against the Twins.
Thirteen straight playoff losses to the Yankees. Three more, in the 2006 flop against the A’s. Sixteen postseason losses in a row for the Twins, a major league record by a margin of three.
Everything’s different for the end of this mini-season, with a 16-team tournament starting with best-of-threes in the parks of the better seed. What isn’t different is Berrios’ importance.
Kenta Maeda gets Game 1 for the Twins on Tuesday, and Berrios gets Game 2. And the Twins will require Jose to be much-better than he was in the Bronx a year ago, or than he was in Minneapolis on Friday night.