A waist-high stack of packages greeted Sergio Romo when the relief pitcher arrived at his locker in the Twins clubhouse Tuesday afternoon.
He used a box cutter to slice through tape and cardboard to reveal varsity jackets he and his wife Melinda had made for each player’s wife or girlfriend, complete with the team’s TC logo on the front and the player’s name and number on the back.
Romo also figuratively unpacked the baggage of Minnesota’s playoff pratfalls against the New York Yankees and stuffed it in a trash bin, displaying the confidence of a three-time World Series champion and a new generation Twin who does not have to answer for so many postseason failures past.
The Bronx Bombers have eliminated the Twins five times in the last 16 years, most recently in the 2017 American League Wild Card game. The teams renew playoff acquaintances starting Friday night at Yankee Stadium in Game 1 of the best-of-five AL Division Series.
Bring ‘em on, says Romo.
“Frankly, there’s no disrespect when I say this, but I don’t care. We’re going to prepare to face ‘Goliath,’ basically,” he said. “Our job doesn’t change. We’re going to go into a hostile environment. There’s no time to worry about who. It’s about looking in the mirror and going: ‘Hey, this is who we are.’”
“Do I understand they’ve had some history? Yeah. I’d like to change that,’’ he said. “At the same time, it’s now, in the moment. We’re trying to win this moment as Minnesota Twins against the Yankees. Let’s go.”
Romo, acquired in a July 27 trade with the Miami Marlins, has three championship rings earned in 2010, 2012 and 2014 coming out of the bullpen for the San Francisco Giants.
Curse, or opportunity?
Forgive Romo for what he knows not.
Twins fans wear the Yankees’ October curse like an albatross. The 0-4 series record. Three-game sweeps in 2009 and 2010. Ten straight losses.
Lest anyone forget New York’s regular-season dominance: Since 2002, the Yankees have won the season series every year — racking up an 87-35 record and .713 winning percentage that only pours more salt into an open wound.
Two years ago, in the wild-card game, the underdog Twins marched into Yankee Stadium and raced out to a 3-0 first-inning lead against the AL East Division champs, powered by a lead-off home run from Brian Dozier and a two-run shot by Eddie Rosario.
Time to exercise those demons, right? Think again.
Minnesota starter Ervin Santana promptly yielded three first-inning runs to the Yankees, who bulldozed their way to an easy 8-4 victory that banished the Twins into another winter of discontent and forced fans to choke down another big, rotten apple.
Only seven players remain from that 2017 team.
So, pardon the 2019 Twins for scoffing at the one-sided rivalry as a convenient narrative that bears acknowledgment but does not define a team that was busy this summer writing its own history.
Minnesota won 101 games and left second-place Cleveland eight games behind in the American League Central. Only the 1965 Twins, which won the American League pennant and lost a seven-game World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers, have won more games in the 119 years the franchise has existed in Washington, D.C., and Minnesota.
Moreover, the Twins outhomered the Yankees 307-306 to set a new major-league record for most single-season round-trippers.
A record five players hit 30 or more homers, led by designated hitter Nelson Cruz’s 41. Only Harmon Killebrew and Brian Dozier have slugged at least 40 in club history.
They are nicknamed the “Bomba Squad” — Spanish for “bomb,” as a nod to the 15 players of Latin American and Caribbean descent on the roster. In fact, “Bomba Squad” T-shirts and hoodies have popped up all over the Twin Cities as Minnesota bashed its way into national prominence as the most prolific power-hitting team ever.
If past match-up is an indication, expect fireworks
This is not another small-market upstart bringing a slingshot into battle with the big, bad Yankees. These are two evenly matched, high-octane offenses that helped make 2019 the year of the long ball.
Consider the last time the teams played in a three-game series on July 22-24 at Target Field.
The teams combined for 57 runs and 20 home runs. The Twins lost two of three and were outscored 30-27 but won the home run derby 12-8.
After losing the opener 8-6, the Yankees won the second game 14-12 in 10 innings, with former Twin Aaron Hicks making an incredible diving catch in center field to rob Max Kepler of a two-out, game-winning, bases-loaded extra-base hit, before New York won the finale 10-7.
Expect similar fireworks in the postseason.
“I would expect nothing to change,” said Twins rookie manager Rocco Baldelli. “I would expect to see some games like we’ve already seen. If you enjoy baseball in 2019, I think you will definitely enjoy this series.”
Stepping into Yankee Stadium
The Twins’ last playoff win was Oct. 5, 2004, in Game 1 of the ALDS at the old Yankee Stadium.
The new venue, which opened in 2009, might not house the ghosts of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle, but the Yankee mystique and their notoriously rowdy fans are impossible to escape. It is a hitter’s ballpark, no doubt. But stepping into the batter’s box at Yankee Stadium can knock the knees of even the most grizzled veterans.
“I wouldn’t agree with the preface,” Baldelli countered. “It’s a different energy. That being said, I don’t find it intimidating at all. I’ve been a part of many, many games in that ballpark and many, many winning efforts.
“The fans and everyone who has followed the Twins for a long time have many thoughts about these types of games. But as far as our players or our clubhouse, I don’t think our guys care one bit what has happened previously. And I think our guys are about as confident going into this series as can be.”
The Twins finished with a lower earned run average (4.18 to 4.27) than New York and boast a bullpen that morphed into one of baseball’s best during the second half of the season.
Meanwhile, the Yankees’ bullpen is 90-1 when leading after eight innings.
The Bombers have a definitive ace in James Paxton, who won 10 straight starts to finish the season, and will start Masahiro Tanaka in Game 2 on Saturday and Luis Severino for Game 3 Monday at Target Field.
The Twins will start Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi in Games 1 and 2 in New York and, possibly, rookie Randy Dobnak or Game 3 in Minnesota.
However, Baldelli would not tip his hand this week, saying the Twins would wait until the 25-man roster has to be finalized by 9 a.m. CDT Friday before revealing his lineup.
Both teams have been plagued by injuries. The Yankees put an MLB-record 30 players on the injured list this season. The Twins have been without Byron Buxton (separated shoulder) who is out for the season. Kepler (rhomboid strain), Marwin Gonzales (oblique strain), Ehire Adrianza (oblique strain) and Luis Arraez (sprained ankle) are all questionable for Game 1.
Baldelli: ‘Fun to watch group really become one’
Winning 100-plus games is remarkable, but it did not come easy for the Twins. Cruz, their star designated hitter, missed 10 games with a wrist injury that originally was thought to be career-threatening.
Third baseman Miguel Sano missed the first six weeks of the season with an Achilles injury but recovered to hit a career-high 34 home runs.
After building an 11 ½-game lead over Cleveland, the Twins watched their division rivals surge and then pass them in the standings by a half-game on Aug. 12.
Minnesota responded the next day by rallying for a victory in Milwaukee when Gonzales hit a three-run homer in the eighth inning against all-star closer Josh Hader to vault the Twins back into first place, where they remained for the rest of the season.
The Twins’ longest losing streak of the season was a paltry four games in early August.
Resilience has been a hallmark of Baldelli’s initial season, erasing any lingering skepticism about the Twins hiring an unproven 37-year-old to replace hall of famer and St. Paul native Paul Molitor, who was fired last year after a disappointing 78-84.
“The way our club has melded together and become one has been very impressive from my end to watch,” said Baldelli, who became only the seventh manager in MLB history to win 100 games in his first season.
“When you see the leadership in our clubhouse and how our guys conduct themselves every day, there’s a very calming presence to many, many guys in that locker room,” he added. “There are a lot of guys other players look at and want to be like and follow. It’s been fun to watch the group really become one.”
The ”Bomba Squad” is a multinational group of sluggers and hurlers representing seven countries, a tight-knit group that grew tighter over the grind of a 162-game season. They are confident but not haughty, loose but disciplined.
The additions this season of Cruz and Gonzales, who have lengthy postseason resumes, not only boosted production at the plate but helped professionalize a clubhouse nucleus of homegrown talent that realized their potential faster than fans — or even the front office — anticipated.
That camaraderie helped the Twins to a major-league best 55-26 road record.
“That’s one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen,” said Baldelli.
Cruz joked: “I think we like hotels.”
‘What counts is what we do now’
For all the home run records the Twins set this year, the 101 wins and the division championship, the only thing that defines success in October are the 11 victories it takes to win the World Series, which the Twins have not done since 1991.
Everything else is just conversation.
For veterans like Cruz, 39, that success has proved fleeting. The Twins have an option on his contract for 2020 they are expected to exercise, but nothing is guaranteed.
As a younger player earlier this decade, Cruz advanced to consecutive World Series for the Texas Rangers, but lost both times. He is chasing the ring Romo has in triplicate.
Carpe diem resonates deeply.
“These opportunities don’t come every day or every year,” he said. “I went back to back to the World Series and I thought, ‘This is easy, I’ll be back every year.’ Eight years later, I’m still hoping for one chance. Definitely, you have to take advantage of every chance you get.”
For these Twins it starts with trying to slay the bogeyman under the bed, the one wearing pinstripes.
“You mentioned history, it’s in the past. What counts is what we do now,” Cruz said. “We just have to take care of what we can control. We believe in the team we have. We know what we can do as a team. At the end of the day, it’s between the lines where we have to take care of stuff.”
Correction: (Oct. 4, 2019): An earlier version of this story misstated the first name of Sergio Romo’s wife. She is Melinda.
Brian Murphy is an MPR sports commentator and former sports writer and columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.