MINNEAPOLIS — The postseason is a fresh slate, where what teams did during the regular season may determine seeding, but doesn’t necessarily dictate what they might do in October. It is, as the old cliché goes, the month where anything can happen.
Unfortunately for the Toronto Blue Jays, their offensive flaws in the regular season followed them into the playoffs, while Minnesota Twins rookie Royce Lewis, freshly back from a hamstring injury, powered the Twins with two home runs in their 3-1 win over the Blue Jays in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series on Tuesday. The Twins’ victory mercifully ended an 18-game postseason losing streak that spanned 19 years and came in front of 38,450 fans at Target Field.
The Blue Jays hit a couple of balls hard, but as has been the case for a lot of the regular season, the team got guys on base but didn’t produce enough timely hits nor did they inflict enough damage when they had the chance, whereas the Twins — or more specifically, Lewis — did. The Blue Jays outhit the Twins 6-5, but home runs were the difference-maker.
“We played a good game and didn’t get the breaks that we needed to,” Blue Jays manager John Schneider said. “And (in) these types of games, damage is a big part of it. And a couple of homers got you.”
Today the @Twins‘ Royce Lewis:
– hit multiple HR
– drove in all of his team’s runs
– drew a walk
No other player in MLB history has done all of that in a postseason victory.
He did it in his postseason debut. pic.twitter.com/iJ8zOe05gb
— OptaSTATS (@OptaSTATS) October 4, 2023
Meanwhile, unlike the regular season, Toronto didn’t get a quality start from ace Kevin Gausman, whose somewhat inexplicable struggles against the Twins continued. Gausman lasted just four innings, allowing three runs on three hits with three walks and those two Lewis home runs.
Now, the Blue Jays’ season is on the brink, which is familiar territory for most of this group after they also went down 1-0 in last year’s three-game Wild Card Series against the Seattle Mariners — and ultimately lost in devastating fashion.
The Blue Jays will look to avoid a similar fate this year and will start right-hander José Berríos in a must-win Game 2 at a ballpark he knows well after spending his first five and a half seasons with the Twins. Minnesota will counter with right-hander Sonny Gray, who had a 2.79 ERA in 32 starts.
“Our backs are against the wall tomorrow, so we got to show up and play our best baseball of the year, but it’s definitely not impossible,” designated hitter Brandon Belt said. “I’ve played a lot of elimination games (with the San Francisco Giants), and we’ve come through a lot of them, so got to put this game behind us and move on.”
Coming into the game, the Blue Jays felt good about their chances with Gausman on the mound. No American League starter struck out more batters than Gausman (237), while the Twins’ offence had the highest strikeout rate this season. However, the Twins have always seemed to have Gausman’s number, as he has a career 6.35 ERA against them.
He admitted on Monday they’ve been a team he’s struggled against because of their tough approach. That continued to be the case Tuesday, as his pitch count crept too high and he had 73 at the end of his four innings.
“They made him work. I think it was two fastballs that he kind of just yanked a little bit to Lewis,” Schneider said. “Other than that they grinded him pretty hard, whether it was walks or laying off some really good pitches. I thought his last inning obviously was his best.”
Gausman didn’t have his usual precise command early on which led to 45 pitches thrown after only two innings. The Twins hitters also seemingly used a deliberate approach to lay off Gausman’s splitter. Minnesota swung at only 10 of Gausman’s 31 splitters and whiffed on only four of them. For reference, his splitter had a 43.2 percent whiff rate during the season.
The Twins were on Gausman right away. Twins second baseman Edouard Julien led off the first inning with a walk before Gausman gave up a two-run home run to Lewis, who hit a badly located middle-inside fastball 386 feet to left field to put the Twins up 2-0.
“Obviously, he went up there looking for fastballs and got them,” Gausman said. “In the first inning, I missed my spot by three and a half feet. Good hitters are going to make you pay for that.”
After the game, Gausman said he recognized what the Twins were trying to do and was able to make an adjustment by the third inning, though, he said it was “too late at that point.”
“Obviously the book is out on me. I’m primarily a two-pitch guy. The goal is to eliminate my best pitch, which is my split,” Gausman said. “They had a really good plan against it. And, like I said, I made an adjustment, but I knew what they were doing early on, but couldn’t make the adjustment … The split wasn’t carrying the zone as much as I would have liked, so obviously they shut it down if it started low.”
As the road team, the Blue Jays knew to expect an intense, even hostile atmosphere. The crowd played its part in making it a less-than-ideal day for Gausman, too, repeatedly chanting his name, including in the second inning after Gausman walked left fielder Matt Wallner and gave up a single to centre fielder Michael A. Taylor. Gausman escaped the jam by striking out Julien — on a generous strike three call — before Jorge Polanco flew out to right field. But when Lewis led off the third inning, he homered off Gausman again, this time to right-centre field.
Down 3-0, the Blue Jays were building some momentum in the fourth inning. With two on, centre fielder Kevin Kiermaier hit an infield single toward third that Polanco whiffed on. Bo Bichette, who singled earlier in the inning, rounded third base but appeared to run through a stop sign from third base coach Luis Rivera, thinking he had a chance to score if Carlos Correa didn’t make an outstanding play. The Twins shortstop did, and Bichette was tagged out at home plate.
“I went because I thought I was going to be safe,” Bichette said after the game.
Schneider said he hadn’t studied the play closely enough to comment on Bichette’s aggressiveness minutes after the game ended.
“It was a hell of a play by Correa. He was standing over by shortstop and he ended up getting the ball. It’s the playoffs, guys are trying to make plays. I haven’t looked at it closely, but I think Correa made a hell of a play,” the Blue Jays manager said.
The Blue Jays finally scored in the sixth when Kiermair drove a ball into left field for an RBI single, ending Twins starter Pablo López’s day after 5 2/3 innings in which he allowed just one run on five hits with two walks and three strikeouts. Matt Chapman had a chance to tie the game later that inning, but his fly ball hit to deep centre field was caught at the wall by Taylor, ending the threat.
After Gausman exited the game after four innings, the Blue Jays bullpen pitched admirably. Schneider had relievers up as soon as the second inning, far earlier than he would’ve liked, but Erik Swanson, Tim Mayza, Chad Green, Génesis Cabrera and Jordan Hicks responded with four scoreless innings, keeping the Blue Jays within striking distance.
“I thought they were great today, all of them kind of did their part and made really, really good pitches,” said Schneider, before adding everyone will be available on Wednesday, including Yusei Kikuchi and perhaps even Chris Bassitt, who would be their presumptive starter for a Game 3, should they get there.
For the second straight year and the third time in four seasons, the Blue Jays will face an elimination Game 2. A year ago, against the Mariners, they stormed out to an 8-1 lead behind Gausman but ultimately lost 10-9 in a game where everything that could go wrong did. Over the last few days, many of the Blue Jays, including Vladimir Guerrero Jr., have made a point of mentioning that the feeling of last year’s devastating loss and subsequent elimination remains with them to this day.
“Obviously we’re trying to win tomorrow to keep this thing going and have to. We know that,” Gausman said. “We’ve been in this situation last year. Last year we came out with our hair on fire last year, too, in Game 2. Hopefully, we can do that again.”
This is the Blue Jays’ first true do-or-die game this season, though high-stress matches are nothing new for a team that had to win down the stretch to get in and then left clinching a playoff spot until almost the very last moment. They also seemed to play tight games on a near-nightly basis, with 98 of their 162 games decided by three or fewer runs. (They went 54-44 in them.)
The Blue Jays will now need to rely on all the resilience they’ve accumulated this year and draw on their recent experiences. Like much of the regular season, the Blue Jays haven’t made it easy on themselves, but the postseason still offers the opportunity to change their narrative.
“I think that this group, overall you look at the body of work and how many times we’ve been in this situation, it seems like a lot,” Schneider said. “I know they’re going to come out ready tomorrow.”
(Top photo of Bichette being thrown out at the plate: Abbie Parr / Associated Press)