Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 1, 2020

More Misery For Minnesota

The final days of September brought no shortage of positive sports stories, highlighting the thrill of victory and the human drama of athletic competition, to borrow from the old intro to ABC’s Wide World of Sports. There was the victory by the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals, allowing veteran winger Steven Stamkos, sidelined by injury for all but three minutes of the playoffs, to become the first team captain in half a century to lift the Cup without actually playing in the decisive game. There was the improbable advance to the NBA Finals of the Miami Heat, who outplayed the Boston Celtics to capture the Eastern Conference crown and earn a date with LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers. There was even the return to the winner’s circle on the PGA Tour of journeyman Hudson Swafford, who won the Tour’s stop in the Dominican Republic after losing the better part of two years to a foot injury.

Then there were the two baseball games at Target Field in Minneapolis. If all the above represented the thrill of victory, fans had only to look to the North Country to witness the agony of defeat. Once upon a very long time ago, the Minnesota Twins were born a thousand miles to the east as the Washington Senators, one of the American League’s eight charter franchises. For most of the team’s time in the nation’s capital, from its founding in 1901 until owner Calvin Griffith relocated the club to Minneapolis six decades later, the Senators were the doormat of the AL.

There were some better seasons in the 1910s and 20s, a period largely aligned with the career of right-hander Walter Johnson. A member of the original class of inductees into Cooperstown, Big Train Johnson won 417 games over twenty-one years in a Senators’ uniform, striking out more than 3,500 batters along the way. Washington made two World Series appearances with Johnson on the roster, winning the franchise’s only title while in DC in 1924. There was a third trip to the Fall Classic nine years later, then the Senators returned to more familiar territory at the other end of the standings, eventually spawning the taunt that Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”

The move to the Midwest did the newly rechristened Twins a world of good. In 1962, just the team’s second in Minnesota, the Twins won 91 games. Three seasons later their win total climbed to 102, good enough for a return to the Series, where they came up just short against Sandy Koufax and the Los Angeles Dodgers. At least the Twins were no longer perennial losers. A procession of stars, from Harmon Killebrew to Tony Olivia to Rod Carew to Jack Morris, produced winning seasons and eventually a pair of titles, in 1987 and 1991.

Regular season success has for the most part continued into this century. Led by a string of capable managers, first Ron Gardenhire from 2002 to 2014, then Paul Molitor for four years and now Rocco Baldelli for the last two, the Twins have won more than they’ve lost and made nine trips to the postseason since 2002, making the playoffs at a rate of about every other year.

But in the Twin Cities October, not April, is the cruelest month. Beginning with a 2006 American League Division Series matchup against the Oakland Athletics, Minnesota has compiled a woeful record in the postseason. That year the Twins did not merely lose to the A’s. That would have been bad enough for the Minnesota faithful, extending a streak that began in 2002, when after getting by the same Oakland team in the ALDS, the Twins fell to the Angels in the League Championship Series, four games to one. That was followed by mirror image Division Series losses the next two seasons, both to the Yankees and both by three games to one. At least those early playoff exits came after the Twins had managed to win a game in the series. In 2006, Minnesota didn’t come close. The A’s dispatched the Twins in three straight while never once trailing for so much as half an inning.

Those three losses were followed by three more in the 2009 ALCS, when the Twins were once again matched up against New York. The next season brought the same result, skunked by the Yankees in the Division round, three games to none. Then in the 2017 Wild Card Game, despite once again facing their nemesis in the Bronx, it appeared early on that fate was finally going to smile on the Twins. Minnesota took a quick 3-0 lead over New York in the top of the 1st inning, chasing a clearly nervous Luis Severino off the mound with just a single out. But Didi Gregorius answered for the home team in the bottom of the frame, blasting a three-run homer to right to tie the score. Soon enough, the Twins were behind, on their way to another postseason defeat. Last year it was more of the same. Once again the ALDS, once again the Yankees, and once again a quick exit, Minnesota losing in three straight. Add in three consecutive losses after an opening victory in the 2004 ALDS, and the Twins entered this postseason having lost sixteen times in a row in the playoffs.

Surely though, this year would be different. Minnesota edged both Cleveland and Chicago for the AL Central crown, meaning the best-of-three first round series would be played at Target Field. Even better, the seedings of the eight playoff squads yielded an opponent other than the Yankees. Seemingly best of all, that foe was Houston, a team that finished the short regular season two games under .500, a record that matched that of Milwaukee in the NL bracket and exposed the absurdity of MLB’s expanded playoffs. For once, as they took the field early Tuesday afternoon, the Twins began a postseason series as the favorite.

Scarcely more than twenty-five hours later, Minnesota’s season was done, it’s postseason losing streak extended to eighteen games. The Twins did manage to lead for a time in Game 1, plating a run in the bottom of the 4th on an RBI double by Nelson Cruz. But in the top of the 7th the Astros’ George Springer grounded a single up the middle that scored Josh Reddick from second base, and then Houston broke the 1-1 tie in the 9th after Minnesota shortstop Jorge Polanco threw away an easy force out at second that should have ended the inning. Less than a full turn of the clock later, the Astros added to the 4-1 Game 1 win by notching single runs in the 4th, 7th, and 9th innings of Game 2, more than enough for a 3-1 victory over a Twins squad that managed just three hits on the day.

The sorry outcome puts Minnesota alone on a page of the record books no team wants to occupy, breaking what had been a tie with the NHL’s Chicago franchise for consecutive playoff defeats. Since those sixteen straight postseason losses on the ice between 1975 and 1979, Chicago has won many playoff games and series, including three Stanley Cups. Perhaps that will provide a bit of solace and hope for the future to Twins fans. Right now, though, the thought uppermost in their minds is surely that not only did the losing streak continue, but this postseason their heroes didn’t even make it to October.

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