Royce Lewis & Co. help Twins end record playoff streak at 18

MINNEAPOLIS — It spanned 19 years and 18 games, three different coaches and a handful of local icons, from Torii Hunter to Joe Mauer to Byron Buxton. And now, at long last, the Minnesota Twins’ postseason losing streak, the longest in North American men’s professional sports, has ended, thanks to a stirring 3-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays in the Game 1 of their American League Wild. Series of letters on Tuesday.

It ended appropriately.

With injured former No. 1 overall pick Royce Lewis recovering from a hamstring strain just in time to smash two home runs. With some of his most unknown players (center fielder Michael Taylor, first baseman Donovan Solano, relief pitcher Griffin Jax) putting in great performances. With their star leader, Carlos Correa, making a defensive play that changed the game. And with his new ace, Pablo López, accepting the magnitude of the streak and pitching like a man hell-bent on ending it.

“This game meant a lot to us for many, many reasons,” Lopez said after holding the decorated Blue Jays lineup to one run in 5⅔ innings on an overcast afternoon. “We just wanted to put an end to something that was very unfortunate for our beloved fans. Our fans have been so good to us: they support us, they support us no matter the situation. It felt good. The way I see it Now, we have a new streak underway.”

Lewis was drafted first overall out of high school six years ago, but consecutive ACL tears halted his otherwise steady progress. The 2023 season marked his major league breakthrough, but an oblique strain cut it short midseason and a hamstring strain nearly finished him off down the stretch.

Lewis, 24, suffered the latter injury on Sept. 19 and spent the next two weeks fighting his way back when the games mattered most. He left practice Monday not knowing if he would be in the lineup in Game 1, keeping a compression sleeve on his tender left leg all night to give himself the best chance. But he woke up feeling better Tuesday and was considered ready to start at designated hitter.

In his first at-bat, Lewis ran the full count against Blue Jays ace Kevin Gausman, who said his patented splitter “wasn’t carrying the zone as much as I would have liked.” Lewis then hit an inside corner fastball and lined it over the left field fence to give Minnesota an early two-run lead. Two innings later, he got a 3-1 fastball up the middle and launched it over the fence in right-center field, giving the Twins a 3-0 lead and becoming the third player to hit a home run in the first two postseason plate appearances of his career, joining Evan Longoria (2008) and Gary Gaetti (1987).

“That’s a God thing,” Lewis said. “I feel blessed to be a part of this. I felt like I was blacked out the entire game. My heart was racing.”

Lewis returned to the dugout after his second home run and looked out at the 38,450 fans at Target Field, as energetic and frenetic as he had ever seen them. He was following the advice of Mauer, who told him in a text message to “suck it up.”

“All those fans really stepped up for us,” Lewis said. “He was special”.

Said Twins manager Rocco Baldelli: “I think the stadium today was a great representation of what the community feels about us and what we do. I thought the place was going to split up and melt. Honestly. It was out of character. this”. universe that is in the field. The fans took over the game. “They helped us win today.”

The Blue Jays offense, disappointing all season, threatened at every turn. But never more so than at the top of the eighth inning, down a pair of runs, with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. lining up the first pitch into the right-center field slot for a leadoff double. The rest of Toronto’s middle order would follow, but Jax, the Twins’ setup man, retired three batters on seven pitches, six of which produced strikeouts of Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio.

Otherwise, the Twins defense took control. Taylor, one of the best defensive center fielders in the game, dived to catch Alejandro Kirk’s shallow fly ball in the second inning and jumped against the fence to take away what could have been a game-tying double from Matt Chapman in the sixth. . . The game ended with Solano diving to catch a hard grounder off George Springer’s bat, but everything changed with a one-on-one play by Correa.

With two on and two out in the fourth, a helicopter snuck under third baseman Jorge Polanco’s glove, prompting the speedy Bichette to try to score from second base. Correa, who was near second when the play began and plagued by plantar fasciitis heading into the postseason, lined up to his right, recovered the ball and made an off-balance throw to nail Bichette, seemingly altering the momentum of the game.

“That should be shown everywhere over and over again,” Baldelli said, then added: “If you like to see the biggest players making the biggest plays in the biggest games, then you should go see that play. It was fantastic”.

Lopez spoke Monday about how the Twins would use the losing streak as “motivation and fuel” to help create better moments for the locals to celebrate. He set the tone the next afternoon, when he arrived wearing the jersey of Twins legend Johan Santana, the fellow Venezuelan he grew up idolizing. Hours later, he became the first Twins pitcher since Santana to win a postseason game in nearly two decades.

“Some people believe in destiny, others believe that the things we do today drive what we will do tomorrow,” Lopez said. “But sometimes things line up too perfectly to pass up those opportunities.”

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