Twins clinch AL Central as focus shifts to trying to snap infamous playoff losing streak

The Minnesota Twins have clinched the American League Central division championship. It’s been a bit of a foregone conclusion for weeks, but things officially were done when the Twins beat the Angels at Target Field on Friday night, 8-5. Starting pitcher Pablo López threw well got support from Alex Kirilloff, who drove home three. 

This is just the second full-season division title for the Twins since 2010, as they won the Central in 2019 and the abbreviated 2020. They are the sixth team to clinch a spot in the 2023 MLB playoffs, joining the Braves, Dodgers, Orioles, Rays and Brewers.

And while I’m sure at this point with Twins fans this is an incredibly annoying talking point, one of the bigger storylines heading into this postseason will be whether or not the Twins can win a playoff game. No, not necessarily a series; a single game. They have lost 18 playoff games in a row, a record losing streak.

The last Twins playoff victory came on Oct. 5, 2004 with Johan Santana grabbing the win, Hall of Famer Mike Mussina taking the loss and Joe Nathan grabbing the save. A rookie named Joe Mauer was on the Twins’ bench behind Henry Blanco. The top six of the Yankees’ lineup went Derek Jeter, A-Rod, Gary Sheffield, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and Hideki Matsui. 

The Twins would lose the final three games of that ALDS matchup and 15 more playoff games in the ensuing 18 seasons. It is the longest losing streak in major American professional sports history. The next longest in baseball is 13, from the 1986-98 Red Sox. Looping in the other sports, the Blackhawks once lost 16 straight in the NHL and the NBA’s Pistons (14, 2008-present) follow. 

I think we could all agree we’d rather have a playoff losing streak than a playoff drought — at least with the playoff losing streak there was a lot of fun regular season success — but it’s a dubious streak nonetheless. 

Can these Twins snap it? 

There’s a chance, but the best-of-three Wild Card Series is a toss-up. Losing two games in a row to a superior team is rather easy to pull off. And the Twins’ competition in the first round, the AL No. 6 seed, is pacing toward ending up with a better regular-season record. 

Possible opponents

As things stand, the four possible teams the Twins could face in the Wild Card Series are the Astros, Rangers, Mariners or Blue Jays. The series would be at Target Field, where the Twins are 43-32 this season (as opposed to 38-40 on the road). 

The Twins won the season series over the Astros, four games to two, a matchup that included the Twins taking two of three at Target Field. That was all the way back in April, though, so it doesn’t necessarily apply here. The playoff Astros are a handful. They’ve been in the ALCS six straight years, advancing to the World Series four times. They are also one of the best road teams in baseball. The good news for the Twins is it feels unlikely the Astros end up in the sixth spot here. The best bet for them is the No. 2 seed. 

The Rangers would be much more favorable and are a more likely opponent. The Twins went 5-2 against them and it just happened between Aug. 24 and Sept. 3. The Rangers can display an explosive offense, but the rotation is missing Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer while fellow All-Star Nathan Eovaldi isn’t fully recovered from his injury. The Rangers are much better at home and just 37-37 on the road. 

The Mariners won the season series over the Twins, four games to three. They split at Seattle shortly after the All-Star break and then the Mariners took two of three in Minnesota the following week. The M’s are very inconsistent on offense, but Julio Rodríguez has had a monster second half and is pretty scary. The rotation might be the best 1-3 the AL has to offer in Luis Castillo, George Kirby and Logan Gilbert. They are a quality road team, too, checking in at 43-35 away from T-Mobile. 

The Blue Jays and Twins split six games this year with each road team taking two of three for the series win. They haven’t played since June 11. The rotation would look formidable, likely with Kevin Gausman and Hyun-Jin Ryu in the first two games. The lineup seems stacked, though it’s underachieved. The Jays are also better on the road than at home. At 44-33, they’re one of the best road teams in baseball. 

If I had to rank the teams by the order in which the Twins should want to play them, I’d go Rangers first with the Astros fourth, easily, while the Mariners and Blue Jays are similar in the middle. 

Twins path to winning a game

In terms of just winning one game, the Twins have a good structure in place. We’ve already discussed how they are playing at home instead of on the road and that’s a plus. There’s also the pitching staff. 

Sonny Gray is the ace having a great season. He’ll surely get the ball in Game 1 and he has four games (three good, one bad) of playoff experience. Pablo López is capable of throwing like a frontline starter, while Joe Ryan looks strong right now. This is a great three-man rotation. Jhoan Duran is one of the best late-inning power arms in baseball while Emilio Pagan and lefty Caleb Thielbar provide quality setup work. Rookie righty Louie Varland has the look of an X-factor out of the bullpen, too. 

Can the offense show up, though? The Twins have shown depth in power hitting — they have 11 players with at least 10 homers but none with more than 22 — but otherwise they are inconsistent and unimposing. Will Byron Buxton be back in time? He started a rehab assignment Thursday. If so, he’s the type of talent that could put an offense on his back like Randy Arozarena did with the Rays in 2020. Carlos Correa has shown up in big spots multiple times in the postseason, but he continues to deal with plantar fasciitis. Royce Lewis is a good bet to be ready for the spotlight. He just has that look, right? 

Of course, Correa, Buxton and Lewis are all on the injured list right now, so they’ll need to come back here quickly as to not render those points moot. 

The Twins will be playing at home with excellent pitching and an offense capable of putting up crooked numbers. They have a great shot to win a game and snap the streak, especially in Gray’s start. 

Twins path to winning multiple series

Of course, if the Twins do snap the streak, they might as well try to hang around for a while, right?

I just mentioned the pitching staff and it could be argued they have a good enough staff to win not only the Wild Card Series but also the ALDS and, maybe, more. 

The offense has the personnel to make some noise. They only have to get hot at the right time. Just look at the Phillies last year and numerous other examples throughout baseball history, especially once we got to the Wild Card Era. Take the upside of Correa, Buxton, Lewis and we can add Jorge Polanco, not to mention some of the upside we’ve seen from players like Edouard Julien and Alex Kirilloff. 

These Twins have shown enough flashes of good this season to believe there’s a chance they could make a deep run. It’s just a matter of putting it all together. 

Ultimately, the 2023 Twins have the chance to do something special. They can snap the losing streak and then make an unlikely run to the World Series title. The 1987 Twins had the fifth-best record in the AL, ninth-best record in baseball and a negative run differential. They are now immortalized with a piece of metal World Series trophy. 

Of course, these Twins also have the chance to join the increasingly long line of recent Twins playoff teams, should they lose two straight to run the streak to 20. 

It’s a tug of war between pressure and opportunity. Your move, Twins.

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