Baseball people like to describe their season as a marathon, but they make rings only for the winners of the final sprint.
The 2019 Twins are the second team in franchise history to win 100 games. They broke baseball’s home run record. They spent nearly the entire spring, summer and early fall in first place. But if they lose three quick games in the playoffs, six months of work will be obliterated. Minnesotans — players and fans alike — have learned how this works.
“In the postseason you have to dig a little deeper because tomorrow is not promised,” former Twins All-Star Torii Hunter said. “In the regular season, you can have a bad week and bounce back. You don’t get that chance in October.”
The 2019 Twins will begin the playoffs on Friday at Yankee Stadium. The ecstasy of the franchise’s unexpected World Series championships in 1987 and ’91, championship memories that are still vivid across Minnesota, has long been dispatched by the agony of 13 straight playoff losses by the Twins. They haven’t won a playoff game in 15 years.
Can the 2019 team end the streak, and the championship drought?
“I don’t think it’s fair to compare this team to others,” said Twins broadcaster Dan Gladden, who played on the 1987 and ’91 championship teams. “But one thing I like is that they’re able, if they have a tough loss, to bounce right back the next day.”
This team doesn’t compare to many of its predecessors, and that should be taken as a compliment. If you’re new to this “Bomba” bandwagon, consider two big differences between this Twins team and favorite Twins teams of playoffs past: the players and the power.
You’re forgiven if you’re still memorizing the 2019 Twins roster. From manager on down, these Twins are relatively new in town. Rocco Baldelli got the job a year ago and became baseball’s youngest manager. He turned 38 last week on the night the team clinched the playoffs. Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron, Marwin Gonzalez and Jonathan Schoop blasted more than 100 home runs in their first Minnesota summers. Luis Arraez and Willians Astudillo produced line drives with attitude, making them favorites even as rookies — although the ankle injury Arraez suffered Saturday gives fans another reason for concern.
Many of the Twins’ most important pitchers are still introducing themselves to the fan base, and one another. Zack Littell, Brusdar Graterol, Devin Smeltzer, Randy Dobnak and Sergio Romo helped save the season and sell programs.
Getting to know the names is one challenge, and pronouncing them is another. If you thought Hrbek or Gaetti was hard, try Arraez (ah-RIZE), Graterol (GRAD-er-al), Berrios (beh-REE-ohs) or Schoop (“Scope”). As you read through the roster, you’ll also notice 19 Twins were born outside of the United States. The 17 Latin American major leaguers give this team an international personality. For the Twins, diversity means translating “home runs” into a handful of languages and dialects.
The most popular is “bombas,” Spanish for “bomb” and slang for a home run. The Twins have hit more than 300 of those. Last winter, the Twins’ brain trust decided to emphasize power over speed or patience, and a deep roster of sluggers has peppered the outfield seats with souvenirs.
The 2019 Twins have hit more than 100 more home runs than the ’87 team, and more than twice as many as the ’91 team. They broke the team home run record weeks ago.
The hope in the Twins clubhouse is that they can solve any opposing playoff pitcher and turn any matchup into a slugging contest that they are equipped to win. If they can’t, October will be the cruelest month. The marathon has ended. All that matters now, for fans and posterity, is the October sprint.
Those ’87 Twins are celebrated as heroes, and the 2006 Twins are remembered as disappointments. The ’87 Twins won 85 games and were outscored by 20 runs in the regular season. The 2006 Twins won 96 games and outscored opponents by 118 runs.
The ’87 Twins won the postseason, and the ’06 Twins were swept. So reserve catcher Sal Butera wears a Twins championship ring and MVP Justin Morneau does not.
“To win a tournament is hard — any tournament,” said Michael Cuddyer, who played for the Twins from 2001 to 2011. “I was so proud of our teams winning that 162-game war of attrition. When you win the division, those are special years — even though we floundered in the playoffs.”
These Twins clinched their division Wednesday night in Detroit. More victories — specifically, 11 more in October — would mean immortality.
“You start every season wanting to win your division,” former Twins shortstop Roy Smalley said. “In spring training you all figuratively look each other in the eyes and lock arms and swear you’re going to take that hill. You go through so much together.”
Smalley was in the broadcast booth when the Twins clinched the division. As the players sprayed Champagne, Smalley stood, smiling.
“When they look at each other and are dumping Champagne on each other, it’s real, that affection they feel, that they did this together,” Smalley said. “And it brought back some pretty phenomenal memories for me.”
The new faces and new leaders that make up the 2019 Twins will try to deliver the same while trying to end a historic losing streak. One more playoff loss and the Twins would own the record (14) for consecutive postseason losses.
These not-your-1987 Twins have become perhaps the most surprising team in baseball. Whether they are remembered fondly in future decades will depend on crisp, pressurized, October nights ahead.
“It’s not how you start,” Hunter said. “It’s definitely how you finish.”