Now we know why the Twins let nearly 7,000 days go by with nothing but losses in the postseason. They were waiting for Royce Lewis to grow up and win one.
Lewis, a 5-year-old kindergartener the last time the Twins took the lead in a playoff series, jumped straight from the injured list to the winner’s circle on Tuesday, hitting home runs in his first two postseason at-bats as a professional.
As is usual in the postseason, the Twins’ offense was largely absent, but Lewis’ outbursts were enough to end professional sports’ longest postseason drought and notch a 3-1 win over the Blue Jays in the American League Wild Card Series at Target Field.
After 18 straight losses since Game 1 of the 2004 Series, “We have a new streak now,” Pablo Lopez shouted after holding the Blue Jays to five hits and one run in 5⅔ innings.
“We are 1-0, and that is what we want to focus on now,” Lopez said.
Especially since they only need to extend it to two in order to snap their six-game losing streak and advance to the best-of-five starting Saturday in Houston. Sonny Gray will be on the mound for the Twins on Wednesday, and a tiebreaker will be made on Thursday if necessary.
There’s a lot of work for the Twins to do, especially if they intend to fulfill their boldest World Series ambitions in Minnesota. But there was no doubt that putting an end to the decades-old story line of futility — and, for that matter, a 13-game home losing streak that extended to the 2002 playoffs in the long-demolished Metrodome — was cathartic for both Twins. Their stadium is full of fans.
“Honestly, I thought the place was going to split open and melt,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli marveled at the atmosphere created by the 38,450 attendees. “It was out of this universe, right there on the field. The fans took over the game.”
Well, so did Lewis. Just playing again, after a two-week absence with a left hamstring strain, was a triumph for the rookie, who had been told by the coaching staff not to exert himself running the bases, for fear of getting injured again.
They didn’t say anything about the home run canter.
“I’m lucky to be a part of it. My heart was racing,” Lewis said of his first career game. “I just ran out of energy playing the game I’ve loved my whole life.”
The rookie received a standing ovation when he came to the plate as the Twins’ designated hitter in the first inning. However, those cheers were mere whispers compared to the eruption that echoed throughout the Garden when the rookie centered a 3rd-and-2 fastball from Blue Jays shortstop Kevin Gausman and drove it 10 rows deep into the left field stands.
“He went up there looking for a fastball and got one,” Gusman said with a shrug. “I missed my spot by three and a half feet. Good hitters will make you pay for that.”
The stark lineouts also scored Edouard Julien, who walked to start the inning.
Two innings later, Lewis, newly crowned American League Rookie of the Month for September — seriously, he was informed of the award on the morning of his first playoff game — had a fastball more vulnerable than Guzman’s, this one curving into the muzzle. His racket. Lewis lifted it in reverse, clearing the flower pots in front of the seats up the wall in right-center field.
“Unique,” Carlos Correa said of his fellow No. 1 overall pick. “It feels like he hits a homer every day, every time. He’s truly a special talent, the kind of talent that can carry you to winning a lot of ball games come the postseason.”
In doing so, Lewis became only the third player in major league history ever to open his postseason career with back-to-back home runs, joining the Rays’ Evan Longoria in 2008 and the Twins’ Gary Gaetti in 1987.
“I’m also amazed at the things Royce can do, by the way,” Lopez joked.
The Twins never scored again, and couldn’t even hit another extra-base hit; Toronto actually outshot them 6-5. But Lopez and a quartet of Twins relievers — starting with Louie Farland and Caleb Thielbar, the Minnesota natives who exited the bullpen first before their victory-hungry home crowd — held on.
“I’ve been getting a lot of text messages like, ‘Just don’t make it 20!’ “It was pretty cool,” said Thielbar, who retired the Jays in order in the seventh. All three Minnesota youngsters [including outfielder Matt Wallner] I got to play. That was a fun time.”
And the brilliant defense made it even better.
Michael A. Taylor, for example, came running to steal a hit from Jays catcher Alejandro Kirk in the second inning with a diving catch to short center field, a play that eliminated any chance of a big inning for Toronto. Taylor also returned to the center field wall after Kevin Kiermaier scored Toronto’s only run in the sixth inning. With two runners on and two outs, the outfielder prevented the Jays from tying the score with a jumper to hit Matt Chapman close to home.
Max Kepler also made a catch against the wall, and Donovan Solano made a diving stop to end the game.
And perhaps most important of all, when Jorge Polanco swept a slow chopper into third base in the fourth inning and allowed the ball to pass him by, Correa scrambled to retrieve the ball, then fired it at the plate, where Ryan Jeffers tagged Bo Bichette out.
“Those kind of plays turn the game around,” an appreciative Baldelli said.
Now, the Twins are hoping their first playoff win in 19 years will turn their fortunes around in the postseason.
“I mean I was a senior [Randolph] High school in ’04. I remember [Twins’ last win]”I’ve experienced everything that all fans enjoy, too,” Thielbar said. “This was my team growing up. It’s still my team. I know how people feel, and I know how much weight was lifted off everyone’s shoulders tonight.”
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