Hit deep to left field on the warning track, going back but not far enough to leave the ballpark as the ball fell in the hands of Yankees left fielder Brett Gardner, with a big smile on his face.
That hit was delivered by Joe Mauer in the bottom of the sixth inning facing two outs with two runners on base. Twins trailed Yankees by three runs that inning and it turned out that would be the closest Twins came Tuesday night, Oct. 3, to comeback in the American League Wildcard one-game playoff in New York. The night ended in an 8-4 defeat for the Twins even after Twins started the game with a 3-0 lead top of the first inning.
Five of the last six playoff appearances for Twins have been against Yankees, dating back to 2002, and Twins lost each one.
“There were a lot of very close games but we couldn’t come up with the wins at the time,” Joe Mauer said during Monday’s pregame American League Wildcard press conference.
Swept back-to-back years by Yankees in 2009, Twins final game at Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, and in 2010, when Target Field opened, they fell into a seven year playoff drought. The worse of all years was 2016 when the squad finished 59-103.
While most of the roster was the same in 2016, manager Paul Molitor focused on fundamentals heading into spring training in 2017.
“Talent doesn’t win you games out there,” Brian Dozier said in a press conference Monday in New York. “When you get away from the fundamentals out there that’s going to lose you 103 games.”
Focusing on base running and other fundamentals helped the young players on the roster come into their own, Dozier said.
The one trait this 2017 Twins squad possessed more than anything was resiliency.
Just a week before playoffs began Twins were fighting for a wildcard spot against Cleveland Indians, Sept. 26. Starting pitcher Bartolo Colón had to leave after the first inning due to a sickness. After an early Twins lead disappeared they found themselves down 6-4 in the top of the eighth inning. Dozier blasted a three run homer to retake the lead 7-6 and closed it out with an 8-6 victory
“Whatever happens we pick each other up,” Dozier told Fox Sports North post game.
Throughout the season Twins have stepped up for each other. During Miguel Sano‘s absence due to a shin injury kept him out for over a month team team found ways to put up runs with Byron Buxton, Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler, Eddie Rosario and Eduardo Escobar stepping up offensively. After all, in the month of August this 2017 squad became the first in franchise history to have five players with 20 plus RBI’s.
In a month where Twins traded away two players at trade deadline in All-Star closer Brandon Kintzler and newly acquired Jaime Garcia, Twins stepped up in August posting a 20 win month which was the most in the American League. This came at a time where Twins were slipping in the playoff race and Twins were entering selling mode with Dozier once again brought up in trade talks.
“We should be adding [players]. It’s frustrating,” Dozier told Star Tribune then. “I know all these guys feel the same way.”
However, the remaining players in that clubhouse were able to step up. Whether it was dominating teams winning 17-0 against Arizona Diamondbacks or 16-0 versus the San Diego Padres, or players stepping up for walkoffs. It was Kepler who took a hit by pitch to tally the walkoff against the White Sox, it was Rosario who swung for the fences to defeat Padres in the 10th inning and Buxton hitting a home run in the bottom of the 10th inning against Toronto Blue Jays.
The young team people counted out played as a team and clinched a playoff spot for the Twins for the first time since 2010. They put an 85-77 record after being the worse team in baseball in 2016 and celebrated their clinching in Cleveland with champagne in the clubhouse.
“Its indescribable,” Buxton said of the feeling of heading to the postseason. “Its a moment I’ve been trying to get to my whole life…so this moment is very special.”
From early on Mauer knew this was a squad that could play October baseball calling it one of his favorite groups to play with in his 14-year Major League Baseball career, Mauer told Fox Sports North.
With the season ending in New York early than Twins anticipated the season is still a success, Ervin Santana told reporters after the Wildcard loss.
“It was a good season,” Santana said. “Nobody choose us [to make] Wildcard game. So we’re happy, everybody is happy…nothing we can do about it but be ready for the next year.”
This is the start to a new era for Twins and the run won’t end here, Buxton told Pioneer Press.
“It’s just the start for us. ” Buxton said. “Great group of young guys, including myself, and we’ve got a great group of veteran guys to learn from. We’ll take this as a learning experience. It’s nothing to hold our heads down for. Nobody expected us to be here, and we did some amazing achievements this year.”
As history has shown to repeat itself this season, the one team they will have to beat is the Yankees. This season the Twins are 2-5, including postseason, against Yankees and 0-4 in New York.
With a young team growing in Minnesota and getting their All-Star Miguel Sano back, who was off the roster in the American League Wildcard game due to injury, sky is the limit for this young ball club that became the first squad to make the playoffs after a 100 plus loss season.
By Gino Terrell