The losing clubhouse the night of postseason elimination is generally quiet, somber and not particularly joyful.
No Champagne, no music and few smiles. For some players, it’s their last night in the uniform of that club, maybe even their last in the major leagues. Every day in baseball features some level of failure, though for many, the finality of the last day of the season is especially tough to take.
But Wednesday night, after the Houston Astros eliminated the Twins in Game 4 of the American League Division Series, that funereal vibe was missing from the home clubhouse at Target Field. Frustration, yes, after the Twins managed only three hits (one after the first inning) in a 3-2 loss to the defending World Series champions. Disappointment, absolutely. But there were also smiles and hugs, along with a sense of accomplishment for ending the franchise’s North American record 18-game postseason losing streak.
Royce Lewis, perhaps the Twins’ brightest young star since Kirby Puckett, smiled and greeted every familiar face. Sonny Gray and Joe Ryan, the hard-luck veteran and promising kid who made up two-fifths of the club’s much-improved starting rotation, embraced warmly. The future, embodied by Lewis, Edouard Julien, Matt Wallner and so many others, seems brighter than any time since 2001-02, when a core of fresh-faced kids lifted the Twins from the dregs of the late 1990s to a run of division titles in the early 2000s.
“It’s obviously very exciting,” Lewis said. “But at the moment, I’m just worried about saying goodbye to everybody, giving them a hug, telling them I’m going to miss ‘em for a couple of months; just a little vacation. Hopefully we’ll be able to go deeper into postseason next year.”
Ending 19 years of playoff futility was big. Once that happened and the Twins swept Toronto in the Wild Card round, sellout crowds of 40,000-plus packed Target Field for the two Division Series games. They hardly needed prompting from the video boards to cheer, yell and raise the kind of joyous racket not seen around here since the Metrodome came down. Even after the loss Wednesday night, a few thousand people stuck around to boo the Astros as they lined up for the now-traditional victory photo at the mound.
Shortstop Carlos Correa, the former Astro, appreciated the fans’ passion. The loss, not so much. Wednesday night he slammed his helmet in the dugout after lining out to Jeremy Peña, his successor at shortstop, in the seventh, in what proved to be his final at-bat of the season. Correa, saddled with painful plantar fasciitis in his left foot much of the season, was on deck when Ryan Pressly, the former Twin, fanned Max Kepler to end the game.
“I want this to serve as fuel for the guys next year, because we’re going to be in this spot once again for a long time,” Correa said. “If you look at what we have here, they’re young, they’re going to be here for a while, and we can build something special.”
About next year: There’s much to like. The AL Central Division champs return with the deepest starting pitching they’ve had in decades.
Derek Falvey, the president of baseball operations, stood in the middle of the clubhouse and ticked off the names: Pablo Lopez, Joe Ryan, Chris Paddack, Bailey Ober and Louis Varland. He omitted Gray, 33, and Kenta Maeda, 35, both unrestricted free agents. Tyler Mahle, who missed most of the season following Tommy John surgery, is a free agent as well. Paddack’s post-surgical right elbow proved sound in two scoreless relief appearances in postseason, striking out six in 3 2/3 innings.
In the bullpen, the hard-throwing Jhoan Duran thrived as a closer (27 saves with a .207 opponents average), though the Twins struggled all year finding reliable relievers to set him up. Emilio Pagán’s final stats (5-2, 2.99 ERA) belie his inconsistency, and it took until postseason for Griffin Jax (6-10, 3.86) to reward manager Rocco Baldelli’s unwavering trust. Jax made four scoreless appearances in the playoffs. Reclamation project Brock Stewart, 2-0 with a 0.65 ERA in his first big-league work since 2019, gives Baldelli another setup option.
“I’m really proud of the way our pitching group came together, the way the bullpen came together,” Falvey said. “We had a vision for that throughout the year. It wasn’t always playing out that way, but in October, it played out pretty much the way we hoped it would.”
Offense, however, proved the season’s defining issue. Twins batters shattered the major league record for strikeouts (1,654) and endured too many nights of meager production. The Twins were shut out 11 times and finished 19-27 in one-run games. Gray’s teammates hit so feebly behind him he had only eight wins in 32 starts despite a 2.79 ERA, third-lowest in MLB.
Things weren’t much better in postseason. The Twins batted .132 with runners in scoring position, lowest of the 12 playoff qualifiers, with 17 strikeouts in 38 at-bats.
“I wish there was a way just to say, here’s how we can strike out less,” said catcher Ryan Jeffers. “We can look ourselves in the mirror and dig into whatever you want to say, analytical or statistical, and see where we can get better.”
It can start with better health from key players.
Post-surgical knee problems and related issues limited Byron Buxton to 85 games, none in center field. Injuries are nothing new for Buxton, whose professional injured list history takes up almost half a page in the Twins postseason media guide. Buxton plans to huddle with the Twins medical staff in the coming days to determine an off-season plan.
“Whatever it takes to get me right, that’s all that matters right now,” he said.
Buxton wasn’t sure if that meant more surgery.
“I’ll have to see how the tests and all the scans and all that stuff go,” he said. “Now I guess it’s time for me to worry about all that. I told them not to bring none of that up while we were in the playoffs. I wanted to focus on trying to get back to play. Honestly, I haven’t really spoken too much about the back end of this because I didn’t want to hear about it.”
Correa said rest should heal his throbbing left foot, which hurt so badly most days he couldn’t run hard. Though he managed to play 135 games, the most of any Twin, Correa batted a career low .230 and grounded into an MLB-leading 30 double plays. The latter also set a club record.
“I’ll listen to the doctors on what to do, and hopefully it won’t happen ever again,” Correa said. “I don’t want to go through another season where I have to play through that.”
Correa said he also needs surgery for a deviated septum, to correct a breathing issue he never mentioned until Wednesday night.
Lewis’s remarkable season featured four grand slams in an 18-game span in August and September, 15 homers and 52 RBI in 58 games, then four more homers in playoffs. But Lewis spent almost as much time on the injured list as the active roster, missing the first two months recovering from ACL surgery, then almost seven weeks in July and August with a left oblique strain. When he did play, it was magic.
“It felt like every time he was at the plate, something was going to happen or he was going to hit a home run,” Julien said. “That’s what we expect out of him. It’s crazy to say, but he’s just that good at baseball. I’m glad we have him on our team. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for him.”
For the ever-upbeat Lewis and the rest of the Twins, next year can’t come fast enough. “Spring’s not that far away,” he said, smiling like someone who’s never spent a winter in Minnesota.