With two outs in the seventh, Tyler Duffey fooled Martin Maldonado with a curveball that dived into the dirt, and got a routine bouncer to third, perhaps with a little extra topspin, as his reward.
With two outs in the ninth, Sergio Romo spun a two-strike slider that George Springer reached for, slapping a harmless one-hop grounder directly at the shortstop.
In a Twins universe where postseason catastrophe isn’t an everyday occurrence, those plays are unremarkable, those innings are over, and the Twins jog off the field. Eventually, they congratulate each other on shutting out the defending American League champions.
But Minnesota isn’t part of that universe, is it?
“Of course we’re frustrated,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “We realize we’re probably a play or two from being in the clubhouse and being very satisfied with what we saw. But we have to play a complete game to earn that.”
They didn’t, no, and managing only four hits and one run at the plate forced them to play a perfect game in the field. And they didn’t.
Marwin Gonzalez, playing third base for only the second time in a month, was handcuffed by Maldonado’s bouncer and bobbled it in his glove, recovering too late to throw out the slow-running catcher at first base.
Jorge Polanco, who patrolled short for 448 innings this season and committed only two errors, backpedaled as he caught Springer’s grounder at his belt and slung it to second base for a force play while he was still moving. The throw squirted to Luis Arraez’s right, and the second baseman couldn’t hold on as he lunged for the ball.
In each instance, the Twins succumbed to the moment. In each instance, the Astros seized it.
“Of course, it’s a play that we have to make. It’s a big moment in the game,” Baldelli said of Polanco’s error, but the same could be said for Gonzalez’s bobble, officially ruled a hit. “We weren’t able to make it.”
And that’s why they face elimination on Wednesday. Maldonado’s grounder moved Josh Reddick, who had singled, to second base, and he tied the game when Springer rocketed a liner into center field. Byron Buxton fielded it and threw Maldonado out at third base, but the Twins were suddenly no longer protecting a lead.
And when Polanco misconnected with Arraez, it didn’t take long for the Twins to pay for the extra out. The error loaded the bases, and Romo, now required to pitch to the smallest strike zone in the majors, 5-foot-6 Jose Altuve, eventually forced in the go-ahead run with a walk.
Polanco wasn’t made available to the media after the game.
“My job is to throw strikes and get outs. I do feel personally that I’m the one to wear that,” said Romo, who specifically avoided suggesting the missed play was to blame for only his second career postseason loss in 30 appearances. “I put my teammates in a position they shouldn’t have been in. … Kudos to them, but I’ve got to be better.”
So does the defense, which had been a Twins strength much of the season. By nearly every published defensive metric, Minnesota rose from the bottom half of the league in fielding a year ago, to the Top 10 this season. But extra outs are still costly, especially against such a playoff-tested opponent.
“Well, obviously, it hurts,” Romo said.
Baldelli intended to try to ease that pain Tuesday, with an elimination game looming on Wednesday.
“We have to show up tomorrow ready to play. Get a little music in the clubhouse and try to just forget what happened,” the manager said. “We have some work to do and it starts tomorrow.”