That expansion, from 10 to 16 teams for only this pandemic-altered season, allowed the Houston Astros and the Milwaukee Brewers to become the first MLB teams to make the playoffs with losing records (not counting the 1981 Kansas City Royals, who had a losing record overall but a winning mark in the second half of that strike-divided season). The 29-31 Astros were pitted against the 36-24 Twins in the best-of-three first round, at which point Minnesota’s superiority in the regular season proved no match for its long-standing misery in the postseason.
“We weren’t expecting this, you know? I don’t think anyone was really expecting it to end this way,” Twins slugger Nelson Cruz said after Wednesday’s loss in Minneapolis. “I mean, like life, baseball is also tough. It’s unpredictable.”
For Minnesota fans, playoff losses have become far too predictable. At 18 straight, the Twins pushed two ahead of the Blackhawks and five ahead of the Boston Red Sox (1986 to 1995), who have the second-longest MLB streak. Tied at 14 games in other leagues are the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings (1993 to 2001) and the NBA’s Detroit Pistons, whose playoff losing streak began in 2008 and is ongoing.
The NFL’s Detroit Lions also possess a record playoff losing streak — nine games, dating back to a lopsided loss to Washington in the 1992 NFC championship game — that continues to this day.
The Twins’ streak dates back to Oct. 6, 2004, when they dropped Game 2 of an American League Division Series against the Yankees in 12 innings. New York won the next two games to finish off that series then won the next three against Boston in the American League Championship Series before the Red Sox staged an unprecedented rally, starting with a 12-inning win in Game 4, to move on to the World Series.
The Twins made it back to the divisional round in 2006, 2009 and 2010, only to lose 3-0 each time, including twice more to the Yankees. New York again bounced Minnesota in a one-and-done wild-card game in 2017, and the Bronx Bombers continued their dominance in 2019, posting yet another 3-0 LDS sweep of the Twins.
So at least this year’s heartbreak came against different foe. Then again, the Astros became the sport’s supervillains in the wake of a sign-stealing scandal that earned the franchise major penalties in January.
In Tuesday’s opener, the Twins blew a lead in the seventh inning before disaster struck in the ninth. The team was about to escape a dangerous situation with two outs when shortstop Jorge Polanco flubbed his throw on what should have been an inning-ending force out. That helped load the bases, at which point relief pitcher Sergio Romo issued a full-count walk to José Altuve, sending in the first of three unearned runs in a 4-1 Houston victory.
Fresh off becoming the first MLB team to win a playoff game after posting a losing record in the regular season, the Astros took a 1-0 lead in the fourth inning Wednesday and tacked on runs in the seventh and ninth en route to a 3-1 result.
Over the two games of the series, the Twins batted just .119, and they ended their season by having gone 47 straight innings without a home run.
Of course, that’s not the streak that most vexes Minnesota fans.
As a number of observers pointed out, the odds of a team losing 17 straight playoff games, assuming its chances of winning each time were more or less equal to those of its opponents, were 1 in 131,072. Now, even more improbably, the streak is at 18, and those in the Land of 10,000 Lakes can only wonder if it will take that many postseason games before their baseball team wins again.
“I hope at some point they break that seal,” Minnesota pitcher Jake Odorizzi said after Wednesday’s game, “because there’s a lot of really great fans, really great people inside the clubhouse. … This city deserves some winning baseball here in the future.”