Twins’ Sonny Gray falls victim to the regression monster — and the long ball


After tying the series and stealing home-field advantage away from the Astros with Sunday’s impressive Game 2 win in Houston, the Minnesota Twins were seemingly in the driver’s seat as they returned home to Target Field with Sonny Gray on the mound for Game 3.

Gray has pitched so well all season, allowing three runs or fewer in 29 of his 32 starts, ranking second in the American League with a 2.89 ERA and blanking the Toronto Blue Jays for five innings in the playoffs. And then Tuesday he didn’t, giving up four runs in the first inning of a buzz-killing 9-1 defeat in which the Twins’ pitching, hitting and fielding all struggled.

It’s natural to wonder how differently the game could have played out if first baseman Alex Kirilloff cleanly fielded Yordan Alvarez’s hard grounder down the line with one out in the top of the first inning. It was ruled an error and, while official scoring rules dictate a double play can’t be assumed, Kirilloff clearly felt he should have gotten two outs on the play to end the inning.

It’s a play that needs to be made,” Kirilloff said. “It changes the complexion of the game right away. Make that play, a double-play ball to get out of the inning, and 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.”

Instead, he got no outs, sticking two runners in scoring position for Kyle Tucker, who singled to put the Astros up 1-0 with runners on the corners. And then, in a moment that probably shocked anyone who has regularly watched Gray pitch this season, he hung a 2-1 slider that Jose Abreu launched 442 feet for a three-run homer to make it 4-0.

“I threw him three fastballs and wanted to get a slider down and away,” Gray said. “It kind of spun in the middle. I hung a breaking ball.”

Suppressing homers was without question the biggest key to Gray’s excellent regular season. He allowed just eight homers over 184 innings, or 0.4 per nine innings. Not only was that the lowest homer rate in MLB this season, it’s the lowest homer rate by any qualified starter in Twins history. Unfortunately, as I wrote two weeks ago, that level of homer suppression simply isn’t sustainable.

And sadly for Gray and the Twins, the regression monster came for him at the worst possible time.

He surrendered a three-run blast to Abreu in the first inning and a solo shot to Alex Bregman in the fifth inning, snapping a Twins-record streak of 57 starts in a row without yielding multiple homers. And both long balls were on sliders, a pitch Gray threw 576 times during the regular season — and 33 more times to the Blue Jays in the Wild Card Series — without being taken deep once.

“Bregman hit pretty much the same pitch that Abreu hit,” Gray said. “He hit a very, very similar pitch. (Slider) wasn’t great today. It was just kind of slower.”

“This wasn’t the pitcher we saw all season” is perhaps cliche to say about a good starter who struggles in the playoffs, but in Gray’s case, it’s just accurate. He was less likely to allow a homer than any starter in baseball this season, and allowing multiple homers is something he’d never done in a Twins uniform. It left everyone — Gray, his teammates, the sellout crowd of 41,017 — in shock.

“I felt really good going into it,” Gray said. “I felt calm, collected and confident. Something that I have been able to limit for pretty much the whole year ended up just biting me.”

And that could be the impending free agent’s final memory in a Twins uniform unless they can bounce back with a Game 4 win Wednesday night. They’ll turn to Joe Ryan, who was scheduled to start Game 3 of the Wild Card Series before it ended in the two-game Twins sweep and then waited again as Bailey Ober got the Game 1 assignment for this series.

Ryan is a fly-ball pitcher at the opposite end of the homer-allowing spectrum from Gray, giving up 32 in 162 innings this season for MLB’s fourth-highest rate among starters with at least 150 innings. Homers have been a career-long weakness for an otherwise very good pitcher, which is part of why the Twins wanted to avoid starting Ryan at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

Certainly, the Astros homering twice against Gray doesn’t bode well for Ryan’s chances of keeping them in the ballpark, but the unpredictability of October baseball can work both ways. Ryan also figures to be on a pretty short leash, perhaps similar to the one that saw Ober removed after three innings — and two homers allowed — in Game 1.

“I think there are different directions we could take Joe’s start,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “There are scenarios where Joe is pitching deep into the game, and there are scenarios, even good scenarios for us, where he’s not. I just want him to go out there and focus on making good pitches. He’ll be motivated. He’ll be ready to perform. I think he’s been waiting for his opportunity.”

Because the Twins fell behind big early and never put together enough offense to stage a Game 3 comeback, most of their high-leverage relievers went unused, giving them back-to-back days off. And if the Twins are able to secure Game 4 and extend the series, there would be another scheduled off day Thursday ahead of a potential Game 5.

Jhoan Duran, Brock Stewart, Caleb Thielbar, Louie Varland, Chris Paddack and Griffin Jax (who threw just nine pitches Tuesday) should all be available for extended usage. While the Twins would love to get five or more strong innings from Ryan, they also don’t have any margin for error if he shows early signs of struggling in his first game action since Sept. 29.

Ryan and the Twins will attempt to keep their season alive at Target Field against what also figures to be a bullpen-heavy pitching plan from the Astros, given starter José Urquidy’s bloated 5.29 ERA this season. Lose and the fun comes to a screeching halt. Win and they’ve got ace Pablo López ready to take the mound in Houston again for a series-deciding Game 5.

Asked about his approach to starting a must-win game, Ryan said: “Just get after it from pitch one and go as long as you can. Give everything you have. Nothing is promised, so just keep going.”

That last part also doubles as a mantra for the Twins this postseason: Nothing is promised, so just keep going.

(Photo: Stephen Maturen / Getty Images)

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