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Another Year, Another October Nightmare for Twins

There are many ways to quantify how long it's been since the Minnesota Twins won a playoff game.

Three hundred twenty-three men have pulled on Twins jerseys since Oct. 5, 2004. They hail from all six inhabited continents. They range from 5’8” to 6’11”. One of them played alongside Steve Carlton, who made his major league debut in 1962; one of them made his major league debut on Wednesday. They span, in some ways, the spectrum of human experience, but they all have one thing in common: Since that crisp Tuesday night 16 years ago, they have not won a postseason game in a Minnesota uniform.

Wednesday’s 3–1 loss to the Astros was the Twins’ 18th straight playoff defeat, which extended their North American sports record. It knocked them out of yet another postseason. The streak has now stretched across seven playoff series: the 2004 American League Division Series, the ’06 ALDS, the ’09 ALDS, the ’10 ALDS, the ’17 AL wild-card game, the ’19 ALDS and now the ’20 AL wild-card series. It continues to defy explanation.

The Twins should have lost some—perhaps even all—of those series. They play in the AL Central, so they often emerge as the winners of a weak division. This means they are often unworthy of their opponents and also that they are often the visiting team. Six of those losses have come at Yankee Stadium.

Still, to lose every game? Only 14 teams have ever lost 18 straight games, and those were all bad teams floundering through the regular season. Minnesota employed two-time Cy Young Award–winner Johan Santana and MVPs Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, all at their peaks, in the mid- to late-aughts. The team won 96 games in 2006 and 101 last season. Since the Twins last won a playoff game, every team in baseball has won at least one except for the Mariners, who at least have the excuse that they have not made the playoffs since ’01. The odds of losing 18 straight coin flips are 1 in 262,144. You are more likely to be attacked by a raccoon.

Minnesota Twins designated hitter Nelson Cruz (23) looks on after hitting an RBI double in the third inning against the Houston Astros at Target Field.

The defeats have accumulated quietly enough that even Twins manager Rocco Baldelli did not realize his new franchise’s record of futility when he arrived before the 2019 season—and after 13 consecutive postseason losses.

“Every team is very different every year,” Baldelli said after No. 18. “And our organization, we haven’t been successful in the playoffs lately at all. And that is a reality for all of the fans and for everyone who follows the organization and cares about the Twins. I'm aware of it now.”

So are the players, but for them, the more relevant number than 18 is two. They played 60 games in this pandemic-abbreviated season, many of them living apart from their families in an effort to keep them safe. They won 36 of those games, accumulating the league's best home record (24-7). Then they hosted the Astros, who finished 29–31 and would not have made the playoffs had they not been expanded to include 16 teams, for a best-of-three series at Target Field. And the Twins found themselves swept away within 27 hours.

They led Tuesday’s game 1–0 heading into the seventh inning. With two outs, righty Tyler Duffey allowed three straight singles to tie the game. Then, with two outs in the top of the ninth, shortstop Jorge Polanco sidearmed a throw that dragged second baseman Luis Arráez off the bag to load the bases. Reliever Sergio Romo walked in the go-ahead run and was pulled from the game. His replacement, Caleb Thielbar, allowed two more when the next batter, Michael Brantley, singled. The Twins lost 4–1.

They never led in Game 2. They never really threatened, either. With men on first and second in the fifth, DH Nelson Cruz cracked a double to tie the game at one, but, desperate to make something happen, third-base coach Tony Diaz sent both runners home. The second, Arráez, made the third out of the inning. The Twins would not score again.

Minnesota Twins right fielder Alex Kirilloff (76) dives to catch a fly ball in the fifth inning against the Houston Astros at Target Field.

One by one they trailed into the press conference room afterward, eyes red-rimmed, voices tight. They acknowledged the bizarreness of this season, in which a team receives almost no benefit from winning its division.

“It’s kind of weird that we’re already out and some teams have yet to play a game,” said Duffey, who pitched the ninth.

They tried to explain what had gone wrong for a team that hit the sixth-most home runs in baseball this season but did not go deep once against Houston. Cruz thought the team struggled without the energy of a packed playoff house. Center fielder Max Kepler thought they were tentative in their swings. Baldelli thought they pressed in their at bats.

“It just felt like regardless of what was going on or what part of the order was coming up, we just couldn't put it together and push any runs across,” he said.

In the end, they finished with more bats slammed in frustration than flipped in celebration.

Some of these players have won postseason games: Third baseman Josh Donaldson, who signed a four-year, $92 million deal this offseason but injured his right calf last week and didn't play against Houston, has made it to two ALCSes. Righty Kenta Maeda, lefty Rich Hill, reliever Tyler Clippard and backup catcher Alex Avila have each won a pennant. Cruz has won two. Marwin González has won a World Series. Reliever Sergio Romo has won three. But none of Minnesota’s young core—righty José Berrios, third baseman Miguel Sanó, Polanco, left fielder Eddie Rosario, center fielder Byron Buxton— ever has. They will have to try again next year. No one has ever lost 19 straight playoff games. But if anyone can do it, it’s the Twins.