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Why the 2023 Twins Snapped the Franchise’s Woeful Playoff Losing Streak

A rosy postseason guide for the casual Twinkies fan.

3:24 PM CDT on October 3, 2023

Facebook: MN Twins|

Target Field is lookin’ good!

Editor's note: This headline has been updated to reflect the recent snapping of said losing streak. Go Twins.

For the first time in this season-ticket-holder-since-1974’s life, I gave up on the Minnesota Twins this year. It was only May… but then June wasn't looking so good either. This was as frustrating of a ballclub as I’d ever seen, with superstars nowhere to be found and, despite a roster that looked so good on paper, an alarming inability to put pitching and hitting together. 

So I bailed.

And I was wrong.

The Twins start a best-of-three Wild Card series at home Tuesday against the Toronto Blue Jays—yet another AL Central Division Championship. Contrary to what any casual, self-loathing Minnesota sports fan’ll tell you, the Twins have always been a more reliable bang for your buck than advertised. They make the playoffs more often than one might think—four times in the past seven years, the last time just as recently as three years ago. 

But what you do when you get to the playoffs? That’s the hard part. A decades-long postseason losing streak is a ghost that continues to haunt. The Twins have lost 18 straight playoff games since 2004, the longest losing postseason streak in all of baseball—in all four of the major professional sports leagues in fact.

Still, despite the fits and starts, the maddening disappointments and joyful surprises, this team has a good shot in the playoffs. I’ve been thinking of the 1987 Twins, a club that was also fitful and ramshackle, and sometimes the worst team in baseball. But they gave Minnesota its first national professional championship since 1954, when the Minneapolis Lakers won their fifth title in the NBA.

I got a funny similar feeling about this 2023 Twins club. Here's why:

Arms

Though it broke hearts in Twins Territory, the Luis Arraez trade for Pablo Lopez was a good one. Arraez may have just won his second consecutive batting title, but he doesn't score a lot of runs, a key stat. Lopez, on the other hand, has been an anchor for one of the strongest starting rotations in baseball, the best the Twins have had since 2007. He stops losing streaks. He starts today.

Sonny Gray pitches with so much blood, sweat, and tears that I have come to ache for him. He’s had no run support all season. If he had, he'd be a sure candidate for the Cy Young award. He’s a gamer and a lifer.

Joe Ryan has been faulty of late, giving up home runs. But he won an Olympic silver in 2020, displaying his maturity and poise then, and his northern California surfer dude attitude and determined precision shows his unflappability now. A young and dominating pitcher when he's on. (Plus he chatted with Racket about his cycling obsession.) 

The Twins will probably go with those three starters for the series against the Blue Jays, with all games at Target Field. But they have a load of more pitching: There is still Kenta Maeda, a runner-up to the Cy before he blew out his arm two seasons ago.

Add to that the bullpen, which has one of the lowest combined ERAs in the American League. Griffin Jax, Caleb Theilbar, Emilio Pagan, and a host of others can chew innings for any starter with a bad opening. 

As for closer Jhoan Durán, even keen and experienced observers have a hard time describing him and his pitches. I watched him close out the game on opening day, and could not track the ball—it came in frames of gray. He's had some hiccups, but he’s easily the most feared pitcher in baseball. When you can top the gun at 105 mph, that'll happen. 

So don't worry too much about pitching. This club has plenty.

Age & Athleticism

This team is young. Really young. Players have come and gone in the past few seasons, and in this one as well. The ease of moving up from the minor-league St. Paul Saints to the Twins and back down is an advantage no other MLB organization has—players are just a Green Line ride away from Minneapolis to St. Paul and back again.

This gives the Twins great flexibility. There are players on this team I had barely heard of who are now contributing: The very speedy baserunner Andrew Stevenson and the awesomely named Kody Funderburk as a relief pitcher have both made the postseason roster. Among the younger players that have impressed enough to make the postseason roster are multi-position players like Edouard Julien and Matt Wallner

Yes, thoughts of a Twins dynasty are premature by a long foul ball, yet there are candidates for AL Rookie of the Year on this club. Some of the younger players have shown surprising athletic skills: good with the glove, patient at the plate, sharp on the bases. Willi Castro, one of the older new players at 26, has been a special surprise. He seems to play a different position every day and also seems to be on base all the time.

Defense & Depth

The fabled, perennially dinged-up Byron Buxton won’t be on the roster for the Toronto series or probably anything afterward. We don’t need him.

The endless rotation of young players has been astounding and well-managed. They’re tough and hungry. There’s been healthy competition between them—they seem interested in holding a job, but also interested in playing as a team. All of them can play multiple positions, and very well.

On the 26-player roster (which can be changed after the Toronto series) there are 12 pitchers. Of the remaining 14 position players, eight can play in more than one spot.

Donovan Solano, a castoff from the Yankees and elsewhere, has played stellar first and third base at various times this season. The reliable Michael A. Taylor in center field has proved to be everything Buxton could not. And Jorge Polanco at second and Max Kepler in right, two veterans by this club's measure, seemingly make no errors.

The addition of a pitch clock this year has led to more stolen base attempts. The one-two combination of catchers Ryan Jeffers and Christian Vazquez is one of the best in the American League; both are excellent behind the plate and boast superior arm strength. And over the last six weeks, Jeffers has been one of the top power hitters in baseball.

Finally, Carlos Correa. Despite all the off-season free agency drama and a stone-cold start at the plate, he’s simply one of the best-fielding shortstops I've ever seen.

Grit

Early in the season, a young infielder named Kyle Farmer was at bat and took a wicked fastball smack in the mouth. Seeing it in real time was horrifying; watching it on replay was worse. After reconstructive surgery, Farmer was back in the everyday lineup within four weeks. 

That's tough, and emblematic of this club, I believe. Though it doesn't look like it sometimes, this team really wants to win. 

Manager Rocco Baldelli used to be considered a boy wonder of sorts, because he lost his playing career too early to injury and became a young manager. He was a natural, but then something happened and he lost his mark. This season, it’s back: He's tougher, wiser, more confident. With the rule changes this year, it's widely thought that Rocco has a better grasp of the game than the umpires. He must think so too—he's been tossed from games for arguing at a good clip this year.

That fire, act or not, spreads to the rest of the club. Baldelli has always been a player's manager, but now it looks like he'd go to battle with them.

The longest tenured Twin is Jorge Polanco. Just 30 years old, he’s the captain of the club, and for the last four years I’ve said he’s the Twins most valuable player. They put him at second base in 2016 (after he came up through the minor-leagues and debuted two years earlier as a shortstop) and that's where he belongs: Everything on the field runs through him. And he’s a switch hitter, equally good from either side. 

Prediction

Fools and their money go their separate ways, and it's never good to bet on baseball, one of the goofiest, most unpredictable, silliest games there is. 

The Twins went 87-75 in the American League Central, which is wrongly derided as a weak division. Toronto was 89-73 in the overrated AL East. That's a toss-up. Betting line puts this game dead even, so far slightly favoring the Twins for the series. It’s your call I guess. But I don’t see any reasons to doubt this young team.

So I’ll just quote what Jack Morris said before Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, where he pitched a 10-inning shutout for the win: “As the late, great Marvin Gaye sang, 'Let's get it on.'”

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