The Twins clinched their spot in next week's wild-card playoff round on Thursday, but there was no champagne, no celebration. That's because, while their playoff entry was already assured, the mathematical possibility remained that Minnesota could claim a bye into the divisional series.
Ryan Noda clubbed a 404-foot home run onto the right-field plaza to break an eighth-inning tie, the Twins managed only four hits all afternoon, and Oakland closed Target Field's 14th regular-season schedule with a 2-1 victory that locked the Twins into the third seed in the American League playoffs.
The Central Division champions will open a first-round best-of-three, against a wild-card opponent still to be determined, on Tuesday at Target Field.
Figure the intensity that day to be exponentially higher than the sleepy, playing-out-the-string feel of the getaway matinee against the major leagues' worst team. The Athletics, losers of 11 of their previous 13 games, 110 so far this year, and all five against the Twins this season, didn't allow a hit to reach the outfield until the sixth inning, when the Twins scored their lone run on a double-play grounder by Matt Wallner.
"Wallner hit a ball about 200 miles an hour at their second baseman with the bases loaded. That's some bad luck," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "Most of the time you hit a ball like that, you're going to end up scoring runs. But our guys pitched good. We kept them to two runs over nine innings."
They did, and the A's could only match the Twins' four hits. But a pair of second-inning singles against former Athletic Sonny Gray produced the only run of his four-inning stint, and Noda's blast, the only hit allowed by Kenta Maeda in his first relief appearance since 2019, handed the Twins their 34th and final regular-season loss at home, against 47 wins, third-most in Target Field history.
Gray finished the season with a 2.79 ERA, second-best in the American League behind Gerrit Cole's 2.63, in 32 starts, the most since he was a 24-year-old pitching for Oakland. He struck out four on Thursday and 183 for the year, tying his second-highest career total. Yet the Twins somehow fell to 14-18 when Gray started, losing four of his last six starts even as he posted a 1.58 ERA in them.
"I felt very happy about making all of my starts whenever my name was called," said Gray, who can become a free agent in November. "That was the biggest thing for me. That was the only thing that I focused on, for the most part, throughout the offseason. Coming up with a plan, coming up with a process, about being able to stay on the field as much as I can."
Gray, who will start Game 2 next Wednesday, believes the Twins are in position for a successful postseason.
"The only thing that really drives me at this point in my career is winning a World Series. We have an opportunity in front of us to do that," Gray said. "It's going to be a fun ride."