In the end, there were breakdowns everywhere. A dysfunctional offense. An imperfect defense. And a couple of bad pitches thrown at the wrong time.
The Twins did not look like a division champion on Tuesday in a 4-1 loss to Houston to open the best-of-three wild-card series. The defeat at Target Field immediately put them in an elimination game Wednesday, in which a loss would send them into a bubble-less October
The Astros, who reached the expanded 2020 MLB postseason with a losing record, scored all their runs with two outs, including three during a backbreaking ninth inning. Houston’s Dusty Baker became the first manager to win a postseason game with five different clubs.
“We want to play a more complete game,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “We have to make the plays. We have to pitch well. Our guys have done those things well all year long. And today, in a tight situation, anything you’re not going to execute is going to come back to bite you. And that’s what happened in today’s game.”
The Twins have dropped 17 consecutive postseason games — including 13 to the Yankees — moving them past the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks for the longest playoff losing streak in major North American sports history.
Sergio Romo, the Twins’ big game-tested reliever, entered a 1-1 tie in the ninth and gave up singles to Yuli Gurriel and Carlos Correa. Romo recovered to retire Josh Reddick and Martin Maldonado, and the inning looked over when George Springer hit a grounder to shortstop Jorge Polanco.
Polanco fielded the ball and threw to second baseman Luis Arraez for an inning-ending force play, but the throw pulled Arraez off the bag. With the bases loaded, Romo ran the count full to Jose Altuve, the 2017 AL MVP who batted .219 during the regular season. The 3-2 pitch, a high fastball, was borderline but called a ball, forcing in the lead run.
Caleb Thielbar relieved and gave up a two-run single to Michael Brantley, giving Houston a 4-1 lead.
Miguel Sano and Polanco got one-out singles in the ninth off Framber Valdez — only the Twins’ third and fourth hits — but pinch hitter Willians Astudillo grounded into a double play to end the game.
Polanco was not made available after the game, but a passionate Romo was.
“My job is to throw strikes and get outs,” Romo said. “I do feel personally that I’m the one to wear any of that. I do feel that I put my teammates in a position they shouldn’t have been in. I made some good pitches again. I felt that I missed some good pitches, but again I’ve got to tip my cap to those guys.”
He’s not the only one thinking that in the Twins clubhouse. They loaded the bases in the first inning against Zach Greinke with one out, but Eddie Rosario lined out and Sano grounded to third, with Alex Bregman throwing Sano out by a hair.
“We really felt like we were going to get him,” said rookie Ryan Jeffers, who got the start at catcher over Mitch Garver, Alex Avila and Astudillo. “Up and down the lineup, we were putting together really good ABs. We were spitting on the pitches that he wanted us to swing at. It just kind of wasn’t falling our way.”
Twins righthander Kenta Maeda held Houston scoreless for five innings, on two hits and three walks with five strikeouts. Houston collectively struggles with sliders, and 48 of Maeda’s 91 pitches were sliders.
The Twins did get an RBI double from Nelson Cruz in the third to take a 1-0 lead. But two innings later, the Astros attacked a Twins weakness by bringing in Valdez, a lefthander. The Twins hit .236 off lefthanders during the regular season with a .658 on base-plus-slugging percentage. Valdez walked the first two batters he faced, then retired 12 in a row, featuring a breaking ball that Twins hitters flailed at with no success.
“He was effective against all of our hitters,” Baldelli said. “The righthanded hitters, the lefties of course. And once he settled in a found the strike zone, he made our lives difficult.”
Houston got three consecutive two-out singles off Tyler Duffey in the seventh, the third by Springer to drive in the tying run and set up the tide-turning ninth.
“We did get some breaks,” Baker said. “We got a break on that ground ball to the shortstop that he threw wide of second. I mean that is a major break. I always remind the team that to be lucky, you’ve got to think lucky.”
A team’s flaws are exposed in the postseason. And the Twins went home thinking about how many things need to be fixed Wednesday.
“This is why we are here, why we busted our hind parts to get to this spot, to this moment so we can show everybody that we really are a legitimate contender,” Romo said. “I mean, I’ll just straight up say it: We’re a bad-ass team. We really are. Now it’s just a matter of showing up tomorrow and showing the rest of the world that. That’s what’s up, guys.”