Joe Mauer sent a text on Tuesday morning to Twins rookie Royce Lewis. Take it all in, the Minnesota icon advised the 24-year-old third baseman and designated hitter.
“He said that’s one thing he would do is take it in and don’t regret the moment you’re in,” Lewis told reporters afterward. “And so that’s what I did.”
He certainly did: Lewis hit two home runs to lead the Twins to a 3–1 victory over the Blue Jays in Game 1 of the American League wild-card series. It was Lewis’s first career playoff appearance and his first time homering twice in one game. It was also the end of a particularly torturous era for the Twins.
Mauer, of course, never won a playoff game with Minnesota. His 14-year career with the Twins coincided with them experiencing the longest playoff win drought in the history of North American professional sports. The franchise has taken several fearsome teams to the postseason over the last two decades. But they did not win a single game, losing 18 times over 19 years, a streak that finally ended Tuesday in front of a spirited home crowd in Minneapolis.
“I thought the place was going to split open and melt,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It was out of this universe out there on the field. The fans took over the game. They helped us win today.”
Lewis’s power was the engine of the Twins’ victory. (That was made all the more striking by the fact that he ended the season on the injured list after straining his hamstring in mid-September: Baldelli had not been able to confirm his status for the series as recently as Monday.) That was bolstered by a strong outing from starter Pablo López, who pitched into the sixth, with a lockdown bullpen effort behind him.
It further helped that Twins hitters chased Blue Jays starter Kevin Gausman out of the game early. Gausman has enjoyed a tremendous year (3.16 ERA) with the highest strikeout rate of any starter in the AL. But much of that success comes from his finest pitch, his splitter, and Minnesota wasn’t going for it. Gausman threw 31 splitters on Tuesday. The Twins swung at 10 and whiffed on just four.
“The goal is to eliminate my best pitch, which is my split, so they had a really good plan against it,” Gausman said. “I knew what they were doing early on but couldn’t make the adjustment.”
Gausman was lifted after the fourth inning. Toronto’s bullpen would not allow another run. But there had already been enough damage.
For the Twins, this one win comes with a huge weight lifted. The playoff losing streak was of course not directly connected to this roster: Some of them were just toddlers when it began. But they felt its presence all the same. López came to the ballpark wearing a throwback Johan Santana jersey—repping a boyhood icon of his, a fellow Venezuelan, but also the last Twins pitcher to win a playoff game. (That occurred on Oct. 5, 2004, when the Twins took Game 1 of the ALDS over the Yankees.) The choice was deliberate, he said.
“Some people believe in fate, some people believe that the things we do today drive what we do tomorrow. But sometimes things line up too perfectly to pass up on those opportunities,” López said. “I was just happy that I was able to, for the most part, secure my plan, do my part and do the best I could.”
Minnesota will now try to close out the series Wednesday. It will have Sonny Gray on the mound against the Blue Jays’ (and former Twin) José Berríos.
“The way I see it now, we have a new streak going,” López said. “We’re 1–0, and that’s the one we want to focus on.”