After leading the AL Central for 157 days, sweeping the Blue Jays to win their first playoff series since 2002, and coming into the ALDS with a pair of starters who could go head-to-head just about anyone in the league, Minnesota’s season came to an end on Wednesday night. On paper, the Twins matched up reasonably well with the Astros. They couldn’t match Houston’s overall thunder, but their lefty-packed lineup was a good match for an Astros squad that featured just one left-handed pitcher and whose bullpen fared much worse against lefties in 2023 than it had in ’22. That didn’t turn out to matter much. Over two games at Target Field, the Twins mustered just six hits and three runs, going 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position, and falling short in Game 4, 3–2.
Meanwhile, the Astros are headed to their seventh consecutive League Championship Series, one shy of the record held by the 1990s Atlanta Braves. Despite their dominance on the mound, the scariest thing about the Astros might just be the fact that on Wednesday they showed that they’re capable of winning even on nights when Yordan Alvarez looks mostly human.
For Houston, the question was what to expect from José Urquidy, who was limited by injury to 16 appearances and 10 starts and didn’t look like himself for much of the season. He answered it emphatically, striking out six and allowing just three hits and two earned runs, both of them on solo homers; he earned 19 whiffs, the third-highest total of his career. Urquidy got the Twins to chase four-seamers up, breaking balls down, and changeups that looked tempting before diving down and in off the plate to righties.
For Minnesota, the concern coming into the game was Joe Ryan and his four-seam fastball, a pitch he threw 56.9% of the time this season. That presented a problem; the Astros ran a .372 wOBA against four-seamers this season, with a second-in-baseball 46.8 run value against the pitch (the Braves finished in first with an absurd 73.2). Would Ryan rely more on his splitter and sweeper, or would he be scared away from doing so after watching the Astros sit on and obliterate Sonny Gray’s secondaries one day earlier? The issue turned out to be moot; Rocco Baldelli decided to go with a bullpen game, pulling Ryan after two innings. In a do-or-die affair, the Twins manager told Fox Sports’ Tom Verducci that he was looking to “virtually every guy in our bullpen.”
Those who were able to tune out the sound of old-school baseball men gnashing their teeth and rending their garments witnessed a game in which Baldelli’s plan worked well. Ryan and a cavalcade of Minnesota relievers held the Astros to six hits and kept them under four runs for just the 66th time all season, including the playoffs. The issue was that for just the 54th time all season, the Twins couldn’t push across more than two runs of their own. As was the case all series long, Minnesota’s rookies led the way. Edouard Julien went 2-for-3 with a double, a homer, and a walk, and Royce Lewis walked once and knocked his third home run of the series.
But that one sentence constitutes the entirety of the Minnesota offense. The Twins, who set an all-time record with 1,654 strikeouts during the regular season, struck out 14 times for the second game in a row. Julien’s first-inning double, the only non-homer hit of the night, was promptly erased on a hard luck liner that gave him no real chance to return to the bag in time, making Lewis’ blast off the left field façade a solo shot.
The lead evaporated quickly. Michael Brantley, the second batter in the top of the second inning, got his arms extended on a middle-away Ryan fastball and sent it into the right field stands at 101.8 mph, tying the game at one. Ryan finished his night having thrown just 26 pitches and with a single baserunner allowed in two innings, but he’d been given a lead and let it slip. Between innings, Baldelli came over to Ryan on the bench and shook his hand. From that point, the game belonged to the bullpen.
Urquidy buckled down after the bumpy first inning, facing 16 batters after Lewis’ homer and retiring every single one of them who wasn’t named Edouard Julien. The Twins’ bullpen, though, faltered. After Brock Stewart retired the Astros in order in the third, lefty Caleb Thielbar was given the unenviable task of facing Alvarez, who had homered off him in Game 1, to lead off the fourth inning. After falling behind 1–2, Alvarez reached out and lined a fastball off the plate outside into center for a single. As Sports Illustrated’s Emma Baccellieri tweeted, “Limiting Yordan Alvarez to a single at this point feels like recording a strikeout.” Thielbar followed by striking out Kyle Tucker, but he couldn’t handle José Abreu, who went the other way with a monster 424-foot home run off the upper deck in right field.
It was the third homer of the series for Abreu, who ran an 86 wRC+ during the regular season and didn’t hit his first home run until May 28. It was also 3–1 Astros.
Chris Paddack replaced Thielbar, allowing a single to Chas McCormick, then retiring seven straight batters, four by way of strikeout. And in the bottom of the sixth, Minnesota chipped a run back. Urquidy retired Michael A. Taylor on a chopper to third to start the frame, bringing Julien to the plate. He stayed back on a changeup, sending it into the left field bleachers at 100.2 mph and drawing the Twins to within one.
After donning Minnesota’s fishing vest and high-fiving his teammates, he spiked his helmet off the dugout floor. “I was just trying to see a fastball up,” he told Verducci. “He’s got a great fastball and he commands it well. He left the changeup up and I was able to recognize it early and put a good swing on it.”
With a reason to cheer at long last, the Minnesota crowd got back into the game. Jorge Polanco nearly tied things up immediately after Julien’s shot, getting under a high changeup and sending it 339 feet into center field at 100.7 mph for an out. And that was the end of Urquidy’s night; he finished with 5.2 innings, walking one and allowing two runs on three hits.
Urquidy was followed by Hector Neris, Bryan Abreu, and Ryan Pressly, who allowed just one baserunner between them. Minnesota did find some small hope in the eighth, when Baldelli pinch-hit Byron Buxton — only on the roster because a shoulder injury forced Alex Kirilloff off — for Taylor. The crowd understandably went crazy, but Abreu, who hasn’t allowed a run since July 15, induced a harmless popup from Buxton, who hadn’t played at all since August 1. The Twins sent Polanco, Lewis, and Max Kepler to the plate in the ninth; if any of them reached, Carlos Correa would bat representing the winning run. Again the crowd grew frenzied, but for the last time it was disappointed. Correa never got a chance; Pressly stuck Polanco out on a foul tip, struck out Lewis swinging, and struck out Kepler looking.
Baldelli did everything you’d expect a manager running a bullpen game to do. He rode the hot hand when a pitcher looked sharp. He gave relievers clean innings when possible. He saved his most trustworthy arms for the fearsome top of the Houston lineup. He didn’t wait for his offense to tie the game before calling on closer Jhoan Duran in the eighth inning. Aside from a single off the end of Alvarez’s bat and an ill-timed mistake to Abreu, the relief corps delivered; at one point, they retired 13 straight Astros. But Minnesota’s offense just wasn’t enough.
Had anyone other than Julien or Lewis been able to get anything going, had Urquidy betrayed any hint of his previous struggles, had Alvarez not been strong enough to muscle an outside fastball into center, had Polanco’s first-inning liner not led Jeremy Peña directly toward second base to double off the helpless Julien, the two teams might be preparing for Game 4 right now. Instead, thanks to another big night from Abreu, the state of Texas is guaranteed a spot in the World Series. “Now me and Bruce Bochy need to battle,” Dusty Baker said after the game. The ALCS will feature four World Series championships, seven pennants, and 4,276 regular season wins between its two managers. The Twins will have a long offseason with a lot of bright spots and even more what-ifs to to think back on.
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