MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Royce Lewis felt a jolt of confidence from his inclusion on Minnesota’s roster for the AL Wild Card Series, ending the uncertainty around his hamstring strain.
Pablo López found inspiration in his closet, wearing a throwback jersey of his boyhood hero Johan Santana who just happened to be the last Twins pitcher to win a game in the playoffs.
The Twins and their fans fed off the energy, finally stopping that record 18-game postseason skid.
Lewis smashed the streak into the seats, homering in each of his first two at-bats to carry the Twins to a 3-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays in the opener of their AL Wild Card Series on Tuesday.
“It was a blessing to play today. That atmosphere was electric,” said Lewis, whose two-run shot off Kevin Gausman in the first inning and leadoff drive in the third sent the sellout crowd into a frenzy.
The bigger celebration occurred a few hours later when Jhoan Duran pitched a hitless ninth to close the first victory for the Twins in the playoffs since Oct. 5, 2004, and vanquish the longest postseason skid by number of games in major North American professional sports.
“This was my team growing up. It’s still my team,” said Caleb Thielbar, a Minnesota native who pitched a perfect seventh. “I know how people feel, and I know what weight was lifted off everyone’s backs today.”
It was the first home win for the Twins in the playoffs since Game 1 of the ALCS in 2002 at the Metrodome. Lewis was a 3-year-old then. He’s the type of big-time player — with five grand slams in 70 career games — that could lead the Twins on an actual postseason run instead of just hanging a division title banner and leaving the party after three or four days.
“I thought the place was going to split open and melt, honestly,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “It was out of this universe out there on the field. The fans took over the game. They helped us win today.”
López also had a strong playoff debut for Minnesota, permitting one run and five hits in 5 2/3 innings. After wearing his Santana jersey to the ballpark, he delivered a performance that was reminiscent of his fellow Venezuelan.
“Sometimes things line up too perfectly to pass up on those opportunities,” López said.
Game 2 is Wednesday afternoon. The entire series is at Target Field.
“You don’t want to say like an over sense of urgency, but these guys know it’s going to take everybody to get to Game 3,” Blue Jays manager John Schneider said.
The Blue Jays finally got on the board when Kevin Kiermaier’s two-out single drove in Bo Bichette in the sixth, but they left nine runners on base.
The Blue Jays carried their own October angst into this series, having not won a postseason game since the 2016 ALCS. They took two-game sweeps as wild cards in 2020 and 2022, and Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. — two franchise cornerstones and the celebrated sons of former major leaguers — have not yet won a postseason game.
Gausman finished four innings with three hits and three walks, his second-shortest start of the season. The right-hander frequently asked for a new ball early in his outing and even had trouble at one point with the wireless PitchCom device that is used to prevent sign stealing.
He finished better than he started but was never able to escape the full-count fastball to Lewis in the first inning that he said he misplaced by 3½ feet.
“Good hitters are going to make you pay for that,” Gausman said. “Obviously he’s hitting in the ‘3’ hole for a reason.”
López and his four relievers got plenty of defensive help. Michael A. Taylor made a diving catch of a sharp line drive to center by Alejandro Kirk in the second and a leaping grab at the wall to take an extra-base hit away from a fuming Matt Chapman in the sixth. Max Kepler crashed against the same padding to catch Guerrero’s long fly ball in the fourth.
The most vital play of all was later in that inning, when Kiermaier’s two-out roller eluded third baseman Jorge Polanco as Bichette rounded for home with two outs. Carlos Correa backed him up from shortstop and threw a strike to the plate to end the inning.
“Once I saw Bo look at the ball, I knew he had intentions,” Correa said. “I could see in his eyes.”
Lewis became the third player in MLB history to hit home runs in each of his first two career postseason plate appearances, following Evan Longoria for the Rays in 2008 and Gary Gaetti for the Twins in 1987.
Blue Jays: RHP José Berríos (11-12, 3.65 ERA) will start Game 2 against the team he pitched 5½ seasons for until a trade to Toronto on July 30, 2021. He made postseason starts for the Twins in 2019 and 2020. “I love pitching in this ballpark because the dugout is so close, so I look like I throw 100,” Berríos said.
Twins: RHP Sonny Gray (8-8, 2.79 ERA) will take the mound Wednesday for the first postseason start for the 11-year veteran since 2017 in Game 4 of the ALDS for the Yankees.
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