The bullpen door burst open, and Dallas Keuchel sprinted as fast as he could across the Dodger Stadium outfield. Keuchel has started a dozen playoff games for three teams and savored countless big moments, but the one that sticks with him most is from a game that he largely watched from the bullpen.
"My favorite memory is seeing the final out, and I just started running" to join the Astros' on-field celebration after Game 7 of the 2017 World Series. "I remember feeling like I was running faster than I ever had. I definitely jumped the highest on the pile. I've got a picture of it, and I'm half a body above everybody else."
If a moment that historic and euphoric should somehow materialize for the Twins next month, Keuchel is ready to offer pointers on half-gainer body flops onto a pile of teammates — though "these guys won't need" his help celebrating, he says with a laugh.
But Keuchel, the rest of the Twins and the team's management believe that the presence of so many players with postseason experience like his could be a quiet but important edge that Minnesota teams rarely have.
By almost any measure, this year's Twins team is the most seasoned postseason squad in Minnesota history, particularly loaded with champions from other organizations. Twenty players potentially available for Tuesday's wild-card series opener have appeared in playoff games during their career, 13 of them with other teams. It's a total of 217 games of, the Twins hope, training for the 2023 playoffs; shortstop Carlos Correa alone has played 79 postseason games, almost an extra half a season spent on the most pressure-packed stages.
Five Twins — Keuchel, Correa, Christian Vázquez, Michael A. Taylor and Kenta Maeda — have taken part in World Series games over the past six seasons, and all but Maeda have a bejeweled championship ring to show for it. Vázquez owns two, earned with the 2018 Red Sox and the 2022 Astros, "and I'm going to be the first catcher to win a ring with three different teams," the catcher brashly predicts.
For a team that hasn't won a playoff game, much less a series, in almost two decades, it's an impressive assemblage of postseason wisdom. Only question is: Will it matter?
"It definitely matters," asserts Emilio Pagán, the veteran reliever who has played for three playoff teams — the Athletics in 2017, the Rays in 2019 and the Padres in 2020 — and pitched in nine postseason games. "One thing you learn very quickly is how much more emphasis put on every day, everything you do. There's just a heightened intensity and it doesn't stop. And having people you can go to with any type of question, I remember how valuable that was."
Taylor, who won the 2019 World Series (over Correa's Astros) with the Nationals, agrees.
"It can be a benefit. So much of what goes on during the playoffs isn't what you're used to, all the media and the attention, and the biggest thing you can do is try to make everything as normal as possible," the veteran outfielder said. "Guys who have been there, being able to share that experience so you're not caught off guard, it's a help."
Playoff baseball is just different
Even the joy of those surrounding you as you take part in something that gets nationwide attention must be managed. Pagán remembers being surprised by how many family members and friends contacted him to offer encouragement and congratulations, and how easy it was to be overwhelmed.
"If you've never experienced it, you don't understand how many people are going to be reaching out. It sounds ridiculous, but it really is insane the number of people who reach out, just to say, 'Nice going, we can't wait to watch the game,' or maybe family members who need tickets," Pagán said. "Having someone who's been there, who can remind you that we're still playing, we've still got jobs to do, that's helpful. Because everything becomes magnified once you're on the field, too."
Oh right, the games. Yeah, they're different, too.
"One hundred percent. The games, they don't feel the same, and you have to be ready for that," Vázquez said. "It's louder, more fans, every pitch matters. The game feels so fast in the playoffs, and I feel like experience helps your teammates control their energy. It's good to have people who can calm down guys who haven't done that."
Keuchel believes he might have a second ring if the Astros had more postseason experience on their roster in 2015. Houston led Kansas City, 2 games to 1 in the best-of-five Division Series, and was winning Game 4 at home after seven innings, 6-2.
"But that's where the lack of experience bit us," Keuchel said. "We were two innings from clinching, but the Royals, who had been to the World Series the year before, got a bunch [five] of hits in a row to start the eighth. Suddenly it was like we couldn't stop the bleeding, whereas the Royals just took advantage of each and every opportunity."
Kansas City scored five runs in the eighth and two more in the ninth to even the series 2-2, and "we knew we were in trouble going back to KC for Game 5," Keuchel said. Sure enough, the more veteran Royals won easily, 7-2 in the deciding game, en route to the World Series title, "and that one still nags at me. But we had a lot of young kids." Correa, then a rookie, was among them.
The Twins have three rookies who play major roles in their lineup and a couple more young pitchers in their bullpen, and giving them an example to follow can be useful. Keuchel recalled how the Astros rallied around 23-year-old rookie Alex Bregman, now an established All-Star, in 2017 as the third baseman went through both big moments and some tough ones.
"It can be a lot for young guys," the lefthander said. "I remember working with our young pitchers to prepare them for it, too."
On the other hand, sometimes the obliviousness of inexperience can be a benefit, too. "You think Edouard Julien gets nervous?" Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said with a laugh about the rookie infielder. "It sure doesn't look like it."
Baldelli was an outfielder on the 2008 Rays, who shocked baseball by winning the American League pennant after never even producing a winning record in the franchise's first 10 seasons. That team, with "virtually no playoff experience, walked out onto the field and outplayed everyone, basically," Baldelli recalled, before losing the World Series to the Phillies in six games.
Still, experience "can be a helpful thing for guys who may need someone to follow. Every team has guys that take a little while to settle into the environment," the manager said. "The earlier you settle in, the more successful your team is going to be."
And the more likely you will be to make permanent, jubilant memories. Like Taylor, who collected some of the biggest hits in Nationals history, but whose biggest head-shaking moment, one that he still marvels at, came a few days after winning the World Series.
"The parade — I'll never forget it. There were over a million people there, and we were riding through the streets of D.C., with all that excitement," Taylor said. "A million people. I mean, a sold-out stadium is not going to have a million people. That was pretty cool."