Lewis’ 2 HRs put ‘win’ in Twins; slide ends at 18

Lewis’ 2 HRs put ‘win’ in Twins; slide ends at 18
  • PublishedOctober 4, 2023


MINNEAPOLIS — It spanned 19 years and 18 games, three different managers 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 — is over, courtesy of a stirring 3-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 1 of their American League Wild Card Series on Tuesday.

It ended in fitting fashion.

With Royce Lewis, the injury-marred former No. 1 overall pick, recovering from a hamstring strain just in time to crush two home runs. With some of their most unheralded players — center fielder Michael Taylor, first baseman Donovan Solano, relief pitcher Griffin Jax — turning in big performances. With their star leader, Carlos Correa, making a game-changing defensive play. And with their new ace, Pablo Lopez, embracing 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 Blue Jays’ decorated lineup to one run in 5⅔ innings on an overcast afternoon. “We just wanted to put an end to something that was very unfortunate to our beloved fans. Our fans have been so great to us — they support us, they root for us no matter the situation. It felt right. The way I see it now, we have a new streak going.”

Lewis was drafted first overall out of high school six years ago, but back-to-back ACL tears halted progress that was otherwise steady. The 2023 season marked his breakthrough in the major leagues, but an oblique strain interrupted it at midseason and a hamstring strain nearly ended it down the stretch.

Lewis, 24, suffered the latter injury Sept. 19 and spent the ensuing two weeks fighting to return when the games mattered most. He left Monday’s off-day workout uncertain if he’d 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 deemed himself ready to start at designated hitter.

In his first at-bat, Lewis ran the count full against Blue Jays ace Kevin Gausman, who said his patented splitter “wasn’t carrying the zone as much as I would’ve liked.” Lewis then turned on 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 down the middle and lofted it over the fence in right-center, giving the Twins a 3-0 advantage and becoming the third player to homer in his first two career postseason plate appearances, joining Evan Longoria (2008) and Gary Gaetti (1987).

“That’s a God thing,” Lewis said. “I’m just blessed to be part of it. It felt like I was blacked out the whole game. My heart was racing.”

Lewis returned to the dugout after his second home run and made it a point to look around at the Target Field crowd of 38,450, as energetic and frenzied as he had ever experienced them. He was following the advice of Mauer, who told him in a text message to “take it in.”

“All those fans — they really stepped up for us, man,” Lewis said. “It was special.”

Said Twins manager Rocco Baldelli: “The ballpark today, I think, was a great representation today of how the community feels about us and what we do. I thought the place was going to split open and melt. Honestly. It was out of this universe out there on the field. The fans took over the game. They helped us win today.”

The Blue Jays’ offense, underwhelming throughout the season, threatened throughout. But never more so than at the start of the eighth inning, down a couple of runs, with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. lining the first pitch into the right-center-field gap for a leadoff double. The rest of the middle of Toronto’s 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.

The Twins’ defense otherwise took over. Taylor, one of the best defensive center fielders in the sport, dove to catch a shallow fly ball from Alejandro Kirk in the second inning and leaped 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 snare a hard grounder off the bat of George Springer, but it changed with a heads-up play from Correa.

With two on and two outs in the fourth, a chopper snuck under the glove of third base fill-in Jorge Polanco, prompting the speedy Bichette to attempt to score from second base. Correa — standing near second when the play began, and burdened by plantar fasciitis heading into the postseason — ranged to his right, retrieved the ball and made an off-balance throw home to nail Bichette, seemingly altering the momentum of the game.

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

Lopez spoke Monday about how the Twins would use the losing streak as “motivation and fuel” to help bring better moments for the locals to celebrate. He set the tone the following afternoon, when he arrived in 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 — spanning nearly two decades.

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


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