Once the White Sox’s 25th loss was complete on Sunday, the Twins began the celebration. There were whoops in their clubhouse, and toasts made to the clink of beer cans.
Yes, the Twins threw a scaled-down, bubbled-up party at Target Field to celebrate something they hadn’t achieved since … well, since last September, an AL Central championship. But it did not go unnoticed that they also accomplished something they hadn’t managed since the 2006 postseason.
They avoided the Yankees.
Minnesota will open the 2020 playoffs in Target Field on Tuesday, and the opponent, after four consecutive ill-fated and one-sided matchups with New York, will be the Houston Astros. Perhaps it’s strange for a team, especially one that has lost a record 16 consecutive postseason games, to embrace playing the defending American League champions, a team three seasons removed from a World Series title, however tarnished by a trash-can-banging scandal.
But nearly everything about the 2020 season has been bizarre. Wouldn’t “Twins finally win” fit that description, too?
“Everything going on throughout the world, under the blanket of a massive, global pandemic that’s going on, everyone’s dealing with a lot,” said Rich Hill, a Minnesota newcomer who will be participating in his fifth straight postseason. “What I see is that this club has the resiliency and the grit, if you want to call it that, to be able to grind out innings, grind out games, and ultimately put us in a great position to win.”
Hill means winning a championship, winning a series, but the Twins first must win a single game, something they haven’t done since Johan Santana won their opener in 2004. The Twins scoffed at that history last year, especially their 13 consecutive losses to the Yankees, but then repeated it.
“They’re aware of it, mostly because you [reporters] ask them. We definitely want to break that. But most of our guys haven’t been here for the vast majority of that,” Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said. “I don’t think it affects our guys’ thought process. It didn’t last year, and I don’t think it’s going to affect them this year at all, either. It’s a brand-new season, a whole new playoff structure.”
And yes, a brand-new opponent. As the runner-up in the comparatively weak AL West, the Astros are the sixth seed despite having the eighth-best record in the American League, and at 29-31 they will become the first American League team to qualify for the playoffs with a losing record. That’s remarkable for a team that won 107 games last season, 103 in 2018 and 101 in 2017, when they followed that breakthrough season by beating the Dodgers in a seven-game World Series.
All of that was stained last November, when former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers revealed that the team used a series of signals, including banging on trash cans, to illegally relay stolen signs from the opposing pitcher and catcher. General Manager Jeff Luhnow and manager A.J. Hinch were suspended by MLB and fired by the Astros, and this season’s team, led by veteran manager Dusty Baker, never came close to that level of success.
Injuries to star players Alex Bregman, Jose Altuve and Michael Brantley kept them out for a quarter of the season apiece, and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander was lost for the season to elbow surgery. The Astros’ OPS declined from a league-leading .848 last year to a mediocre .718 in 2020, and their ERA rose from 3.66 to 4.24. Worst of all, they posted a 9-23 record on the road, second-worst in the league.
But they are still the Astros, a team that has the postseason credentials that the Twins don’t.
“All my friends, I’m sure, will be a little torn,” said Twins reliever Tyler Duffey, a Houston native. “It [would be] special to beat them. … They’re major leaguers, they’re there for a reason. I think we’re going to show up ready to rock on Tuesday and give them all we’ve got.”
First, though, comes a celebration, and with good reason. Back-to-back division championships don’t come around often.
“It sounds pretty good,” Baldelli said. “Our guys have handled everything with extraordinary professionalism, enthusiasm, focus. You have to bring it every day, and we had a group that did that.”
“The mental toughness in this group is off the charts,” reliever Taylor Rogers said. “It was something really cool to be a part of.”
It’s in the past now, though, same place they hope to put that long losing streak.
“I want to be clear: These are great days, but our group doesn’t feel like we’re done in any way. We feel like we’re just getting going.”