MINNEAPOLIS — The Target Field crowd brought it Tuesday afternoon. The Minnesota Twins offense and Sonny Gray did not.
Playing in front of their largest crowd in four years, the Twins couldn’t possibly start any worse than they did in Game 3 of the American League Division Series. Alex Kirilloff whiffed on a critical defensive play, Gray yielded a back-breaking first-inning home run and the Twins offense couldn’t capitalize on several early chances in a 9-1 drubbing courtesy of the Houston Astros in front of 41,017 at Target Field.
Twins hitters struck out 14 times, produced only three hits, and Gray and Bailey Ober, who pitched in relief, surrendered two homers each as Houston took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five series. The teams meet in Game 4 on Wednesday.
“We feel the excitement,” catcher Ryan Jeffers said. “I hate that we weren’t able to give (the fans) something more to cheer about.”
The Twins didn’t even allow the biggest Target Field crowd since Game 3 of the 2019 ALDS to settle in before delivering them a gut punch. Minutes after Johan Santana’s first pitch to Joe Mauer and a flyover by two F-16s pumped the crowd up, the Astros brought the entire building back to earth.
Gray got ahead of Jose Altuve with two quick strikes, but the future Hall of Famer got enough of a sweeper on the outer edge to pitch it into left field for a leadoff single. The All-Star pitcher appeared to then be on the road to recovery, first with a strikeout of Alex Bregman, and then inducing a potential double-play ball off the bat of All-World hitter Yordan Alvarez. But when he went to the first-base line to retrieve the grounder, Kirilloff misjudged the hop, and the ball scooted by him for a crushing two-base error.
“It just changes the complexion of the game right away,” Kirilloff said. “Making that play, a double-play ball to get out of the inning, it’s 0-0 and we’re coming up in the bottom of the first. It’s a different game. That’s on me. I take full responsibility for that. … It’s a play that needs to be made.”
Veterans of the postseason, Houston’s hitters knew not to waste the opportunity.
Though Gray was happy with the execution of his 1-1 changeup to Kyle Tucker, the outfielder singled through a wide-open left side of the infield for an RBI single. Down a run, Gray then made his only bad pitch of the inning. Unfortunately for the Twins, it changed the complexion of the contest.
After falling behind 2-1 in the count to José Abreu, Gray left a slider he wanted down and away over the middle. Abreu hammered it 442 feet for a three-run homer.
“I hung a breaking ball and just stayed in the middle,” Gray said. “That was kind of it for that inning.”
José Abreu got all of this one! 😯
— MLB (@MLB) October 10, 2023
With the way the Twins hit Tuesday, “it” proved to be the game.
The Twins went into the contest expecting to see Astros starter Cristian Javier pump fastball after fastball. Throughout his career, Javier’s leaned heavily on the fastball, one shortstop Carlos Correa said has good carry from a deceptive slot, throwing it 59.6 percent of the time.
Yet Tuesday, Javier took advantage of a slider Twins hitters struggled to see and cranked up the usage. The plan to throw additional sliders with no distinct usage pattern left Twins hitters befuddled.
“Not a great game,” Correa said. “They put people on base. We didn’t.”
Whereas the Twins demonstrated tremendous plate discipline in Houston, laying off off-speed pitches that went for balls and swinging at strikes, they weren’t able to do the same with Javier. Some players suggested it was the shadows that crept across the infield in the early innings. Houston manager Dusty Baker said Monday he expected the shadows would play a big role in affecting hitters’ views.
Yet for as difficult as the shadows might have been, Houston’s hitters performed in spite of them. The Twins did not.
“A couple of us communicated it was tough to pick up spin,” outfielder Max Kepler said. “There’s going to be excuses made that the shadows were hard to deal with, the reflection off that new building was in our eyes. But we can’t make excuses — they hit the ball well and had the same shadows.”
Said Correa: “Abreu was able to look for a slider, and he got it. He put the team ahead right away. We weren’t able to bounce back.”
Patient at times, the Twins gave themselves several early chances that riled up the crowd.
Jorge Polanco walked with one out in the first inning and Kepler doubled off the right-field wall, which sent Target Field’s noise level to a high decibel. But Javier struck out rookie Royce Lewis with two sliders well off the plate and followed with a strikeout of Correa. Correa said afterward he expected a first-pitch slider and instead took a fastball down the middle.
Two innings later, Jeffers reached on a hit by pitch and Edouard Julien drew a walk. But Javier struck out Polanco and retired Kepler and Lewis on fly balls. After the Twins loaded the bases in the fifth inning, again bringing the patrons to a fevered pitch, Javier struck out Kepler and Lewis.
— MLB (@MLB) October 10, 2023
“We had plenty of opportunity,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “We really did. There was a theme in those at-bats. I think we expanded a little bit. We’d get in a good spot … to make something happen. We didn’t make it happen when the time came.”
Finally, when they were down by six runs and with Javier out of the game after nine strikeouts over five scoreless innings, the Twins were primed to break through against rookie pitcher Hunter Brown. Correa singled and Matt Wallner walked ahead of Willi Castro’s RBI single, the team’s first hit with a runner in scoring position.
Jeffers worked ahead 2-1 in the count and ripped a fastball up the middle. The ball exited Jeffers’ bat at 110.7 mph and was ticketed for center field but Houston shortstop Jeremy Peña made a diving stop and started a deflating 6-4-3 double play.
“He made a helluva play,” Jeffers said. “He’s got gold on his glove for a reason. It stinks, but he made a good play.”
Twins fans made a strong play throughout the contest despite the team’s poor showing.
As late as the eighth inning, fans still delivered energy. After Wallner raced in to make a sliding grab and steal a hit from Altuve, fans in the bleachers gave him a standing ovation. Then they cheered when Ober struck out Alex Bregman looking to end the inning.
Those examples were exemplary of a crowd that consistently brought it all day, roaring back to life despite repeatedly being disappointed by the home team’s performance. Though the ballpark at Seventh and Twins Way temporarily went silent after a jaw-droppingly ugly first inning, it didn’t take long for fans to rally.
Starting in the bottom of the second inning, fans started counting loudly as Javier flirted with several pitch-clock violations, doing their best to distract the Houston starter. They roared to life again in the third when Javier hit Jeffers and walked Julien to start the third inning only to be disappointed by three consecutive outs.
The same reaction was provided in the fifth — overwhelming noise — when the Twins loaded the bases with one out only for Kepler and Lewis to strike out.
The park was ready to erupt again in the sixth inning after Castro singled in a run, the team’s first hit with a runner in scoring position of the game. Not even Peña’s web gem could snuff the life out of them.
— MLB (@MLB) October 10, 2023
It was only in the ninth inning when the crowd could take no more. Already down five runs, home runs by Alvarez, his fourth of the series, and Abreu, his second of the game, sent people heading for the exits.
“They were great,” Castro said of the crowd. “We play even better when they are here.”
The Twins hope to play in front of the home crowd a few more times this month. For now, they’re only guaranteed one more opportunity Wednesday.
To accomplish that goal, the Twins need a win in Game 4 and then a Game 5 victory in Houston.
Though the odds aren’t in their favor, the Twins already earned a big victory in Houston. They also know they’d have their ace, Pablo López, to take the ball in a deciding Game 5 if they can reach that point.
But first, they’ll need to erase Tuesday’s lousy performance from their minds.
“When you go into an elimination game, you gotta be ready to do whatever is possible to help the team win,” Correa said. “Everybody’s available, all the arms are available, and we gotta do a better job with people on base if we want to stay alive. We’re gonna do that (Wednesday).”
(Photo of Max Kepler: David Berding / Getty Images)