The autumn sun cast a long shadow across Target Field Sunday evening as the Twins took their swings in the batting cage and shagged fly balls in the outfield, cracking jokes and slapping backs despite facing postseason elimination again at the hands of their arch nemesis.
A devil-may-care attitude might be the best way to roll when trailing the New York Yankees two games to none in this best-of-five American League Division Series, and perhaps the only way to prevent the sun from setting on their historic 2019 season.
It has been 15 years since the Twins won a playoff game. They have lost 15 in a row, including 12 straight to the Yankees. No baseball team has suffered such futility. One more loss and Minnesota will join the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks (1975-79) as the only major North American professional sports team to lose 16 consecutive playoff games.
Fatalism grips a fan base conditioned to October disappointment as the series shifts to Minneapolis for Game 3 Monday night after the Yankees bulldozed their way to blowout victories in Games 1 and 2 in the Bronx. The Twins, though, collectively put on a brave face on a relaxed off day and embraced the challenge of trying to extend a disastrous series on the brink despite a pitch not being thrown in their home ballpark.
Reliever Trevor May said no one is panicking or bemoaning the circumstances in which the club finds itself yet again. He insisted the optional workout was just another day at the ballpark.
“Same guys are smiling that usually smile. Same guys that are stone-faced are stone-faced. Same guys that haven’t said a word still aren’t saying anything,” he said. “So, it feels normal. We got punched in the mouth a couple times in New York. But the thing about it is we have pride to punch back.”
It had better be a haymaker if they expect to slow the punishing Yankees, who have bashed Minnesota pitching while smothering its prolific lineup.
The Twins are hitting a paltry .197 and have been outscored 18-4 since taking a 2-0 lead in Game 1. Their once-dominant bullpen, the lynchpin of their second-half surge, has been torched for 12 runs over 10 innings, yielding 11 walks and hitting two batters.
The Twins won 101 games en route to the AL Central Division title, second-most in franchise history behind the 1965 pennant winners. They slugged a record 307 home runs and led baseball with a 55-26 road record. None of which helped them overcome nervousness that paralyzed them at the plate and on the mound on the grand stage of boisterous Yankee Stadium.
Game 2 starter Randy Dobnak, who started the season in Class A and spent last winter driving an Uber to supplement his income, only lasted two innings and was tagged for four runs. Rookie reliever Zack Littell allowed two runs in 1/3 of an inning.
“It’s a type of atmosphere you’re not ready for until you play in it,” said May. “We have some guys who don’t necessarily even have a lot of experience in the major leagues, let alone in something like that, but there’s no way to really prepare of it. There’s only so much meditation you can do and visualization you can do before you’re out there.
“Coming back here with our fans and things, that takes one of those elements out of it and allows us to get back to the grindstone. But every game matters. At this point, it’s win or go home.”
Rookie manager Rocco Baldelli has come under criticism for his handling of the pitching staff. He lifted Game 1 starter Jose Berrios after only four innings and the Twins leading 2-1 and watched his bullpen implode. He started the inexperienced Dobnak over all-star Jake Odorizzi, who is tasked with applying the tourniquet in Game 3. But Baldelli is not second-guessing himself.
“I don’t regret anything that we’ve done with our pitcher usage,” he said. “The games have not played out, obviously, in an ideal fashion. Starting in Game 1, when we went to our bullpen, these are guys that we’ve relied on all year long. I’m never opposed to going back and talking about things and learning and making adjustments, even myself, but as far as regretting anything, certainly not.”
Baldelli hands the ball to Odorizzi, who has been one of Minnesota’s best starters this season, with a 15-7 record and 3.51 earned-run average in 30 starts. The eight-year veteran certainly knows the Yankees, having spent five seasons pitching in the AL East for the Tampa Bay Rays.
In two starts against New York this season Odorizzi pitched six shutout innings with eight strikeouts May 4 at Yankee Stadium before the Yankees pasted him for nine runs and 10 hits July 24 at Target Field.
“I think he’s going to break out all the stops,” Baldelli said about Odorizzi. ““It really comes down to having an answer to whatever kind of comes in front of you. You don’t know what you’re going to have to deal with in a particular situation when you take the mound. You’re probably going to have to deal with a lot of different things that come up, but I think Jake has the answers to anything that he’s going to see out there.”
The Twins’ task is daunting but not impossible. Since baseball split into divisions in 1969, 10 teams have rallied to win three straight games after falling behind 0-2 in postseason series — seven since the wild-card era began in 1995. The Yankees most recently pulled off the feat, roaring back in 2017 against Cleveland to win their best-of-five ALDS.
New York manager Aaron Boone knows his team is well-positioned to advance and extend Minnesota’s October misery. Their bullpen was protected from having to pitch in pressurized situations in Games 1 and 2 and is well-rested for a potential clincher. But elimination games often are the hardest to win, especially on the road.
“We’re in a good position,” Boone said Sunday. “We’re in good shape, obviously, but it shifts venues now all of a sudden. We understand still what a really good team we’re up against. There’s always that trepidation walking into a game knowing that it can get sideways at any point, too.”
Like so much of their postseason history, the Twins have been doomed when trailing an opponent two games to none. It has happened to them five times.
In 1969 and ’70, they were swept by the Baltimore Orioles when the American League championship series was a best-of-five. In 2006, they lost the first two games of the ALDS to the A’s at home before losing Game 3 in Oakland 3-0. In 2009 the Yankees completed their three-game steamroll by winning the final game ever played at the Metrodome, another 3-0 shutout. A year later they completed their latest three-game sweep by shutting out Minnesota – you guessed it, 3-0 – at Yankee Stadium.
The desperate Twins aren’t the type of team for Knute Rockne moments and inspirational speeches in the clubhouse. May said they are too busy going about their business as usual. But he noted that veteran designated hitter Nelson Cruz, who has played in two World Series and has 43 postseason games on his resume, said the Yankees still needed to respect the Twins as the series moves to Target Field.
How the Twins respond Monday night will go a long way toward defining a season for the ages.
“I know personally it got me going a little bit, as if I needed more motivation,” May said. “But it’s one of those things like, don’t give us an inch because we’ll take a mile type thing. When the doors have been opened for us all year, we’ve exploded through them. So that’s what we’re looking to do.”
0-2 comebacks in division series
2017 ALDS, Yankees over Cleveland
2015 ALDS, Blue Jays over Rangers
2012 NLDS, Giants over Reds
2003 ALDS, Red Sox over A's
2001 ALDS, Yankees over A's.
1999 ALDS, Red Sox over Cleveland
1995 ALDS, Mariners over Yankees
1981 NLDS, Dodgers over Astros
0-2 comebacks in best-of-five league championship series (2-3 format)
1984 NLCS, Padres over Cubs
1982 ALCS, Brewers over Angels