Major League Baseball is considering a new wrinkle to its playoff format in the future: Allowing the top seeds to choose their own opponents.
The Twins took that plan for a test drive Sunday.
Minnesota claimed its second consecutive AL Central championship despite a 5-3 loss to the Reds, a game decided when Cincinnati strung together three singles and two walks in the 10th inning. But moments after that setback, the Twins were celebrating, having learned that the White Sox had closed their season with a 10-8 loss to the Cubs, missing their chance to tie the Twins for the division title and claim the higher seed.
“There were some people probably peeking under the [dugout] railing to look at that score a few times during our game,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “And I might have been one of them.”
A bullpen blowup in their home park, particularly after a strong starting performance by 40-year-old lefthander Rich Hill, is not how Baldelli and his players wanted to close this strange season. But by suffering a minor loss on the field, the Twins enjoyed a potentially significant victory in the standings. By falling to third in the AL seedings, the Twins avoided Chicago’s powerful lineup and starters Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel.
Instead, the Twins will open a best-of-three series at Target Field at 1 p.m. Tuesday against the Houston Astros, at 29-31 the only AL playoff team with a losing record. Facing former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke in the opener is no small challenge, either, but the Astros have won back-to-back games only twice in a month, no small consideration in a best-of three showdown.
Attempting to benefit from a loss can be a distasteful matter to such competitive athletes, and it was clear in the late innings that the Twins had no appetite for choosing their next opponent with a loss. Even after Cincinnati scored three runs in the 10th inning, with Tucker Barnhart and Eugenio Suarez providing RBI hits, the Twins quickly responded.
“We were playing to win. We were going out there to win the ballgame,” Baldelli said. “We wanted to take control of the situation by just winning this game and then we wouldn’t have to worry about anything else.”
With Jorge Polanco placed on second base to begin the inning, Marwin Gonzalez led off by hitting a changeup from Raisel Iglesias into center field, scoring Polanco. But Mitch Garver struck out, Max Kepler popped out, and Ehire Adrianza closed the regular season by striking out.
Not that anyone minded. Not with a division championship to savor.
“Having that banner, having that pennant up, matters,” reliever Tyler Duffey said. “Second place means you got in, third place whatever, but having that banner with that year on it, that’s forever. And that’s something we all think is very special.”