NEW YORK – On Friday night, in the first game of the playoffs, the Twins trotted out their ace and a rested bullpen to face a team with which they are supposedly evenly matched, and the best version of their team imploded.
The Twins' ace, Jose Berrios, lasted four innings. Their rested relievers allowed seven runs over the next three innings, turning a budding slugfest into a TKO.
Their first baseman, C.J. Cron, impressed with the glove all year but was charged with an error while failing to scoop a low throw from second baseman Luis Arraez in the third, costing the Twins two runs. Their catcher, Mitch Garver, looked less than smooth behind the plate and struck out in his first three at-bats, winding up 0-for-5 with zero balls hit out of the infield.
Arraez, playing on a sore ankle, also couldn't catch a popup in right field on a night when the Twins needed fielding excellence.
The result of a frequently ugly performance was a 10-4 loss to the New York Yankees in Game 1 of the ALDS. The Twins will send Randy Dobnak to the Yankee Stadium mound on Saturday afternoon, just to emphasize their sudden underdog status.
The former Independent League pitcher starting Game 2 vs. the Yankees in The Stadium? Those wearing superhero costumes and gathering on the other side of town for Comicon think that's odd. "I love it,'' Dobnak said of the rowdy atmosphere at Yankee Stadium. "The louder they are, the more I love it.''
The Twins needed more innings from Berrios and more resistance from the lineup. Instead, they produced one run after the third inning.
In five-game postseason series, the team that wins the first game wins the series 73 percent of the time. And few postseason teams have entered a five-game series planning on patching together two or more "bullpen games."
Had Berrios been able to pitch six or seven innings, the Twins' bullpen might have been up to the task. When he left after four innings and 88 pitches, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli went to Zack Littell, Tyler Duffey, Cody Stashak, Kyle Gibson and Brusdar Graterol. Duffey allowed two inherited runners and Graterol pitched a scoreless eighth. Otherwise the Twins' bullpen was overmatched by a powerhouse Yankees lineup that generally refused to chase pitches out of the strike zone.
The Twins walked or hit nine Yankees, allowing New York to score 10 runs on only eight hits. Nibbling can work against lesser lineups. Against good teams, a pitcher must realize he's going to have to throw strikes eventually. He might as well do so while the bases are empty.
One subset of the Twins' roster looked up to the task — their three stars from the Dominican Republic. Jorge Polanco, Nelson Cruz and Miguel Sano went 4-for-10 with four walks, three homers and four RBI. The rest of the lineup went 3-for-24 with two walks.
The Twins enter Game 2 desperately needing a victory, and if there is reason for hope it is that Baldelli will be able to use perhaps his best bullpen options — Taylor Rogers, Sergio Romo and Trevor May.
Littell pitched well this season. His ERA was 2.68. Pitching in Yankee Stadium is not like facing the Royals on a Tuesday night in front of a few thousand people. "Tonight, I beat myself,'' he said.
The Twins have lost a record 14 straight postseason games, including 11 to the Yankees. They haven't won a playoff game since 2004 at the old Yankee Stadium.
The Twins claim that history doesn't matter, but the unassociated present looked ugly all by itself. "Obviously I did feel it," Littell said. "But that's a situation everyone dreams of being in."
This series isn't about dreams. It's about harsh realities — the Twins' playoff history, a lack of starting pitching and an opponent built to expose their flaws.