CHICAGO – Even amid a season taking place with masks and taxi squads and virus tests and no fans in the seats, this may rank as the strangest part about Twins baseball in 2020: Excellent pitching is the reason they will take part in the playoffs.
It’s the reason they clinched that status Saturday night, too.
Eddie Rosario, Miguel Sano and Josh Donaldson cracked solo home runs, and the Twins finally busted out with a five-run inning at Wrigley Field. But Michael Pineda, even on a night in which he lacked his usual strikeout stuff, limited the Cubs to four hits in five innings, and the bullpen retired 12 of 13 batters, carrying the Twins to an 8-1 victory, their third postseason invitation in four years, and an earnest if low-key bash afterward.
“It’s special in there,” Baldelli said of his socially distanced clubhouse. “It may not be the night-till-morning party that it can be at times. It’s going to be a little bit different, a little bit more subdued, but just as meaningful and maybe more so because of what year it is and everything that’s been going on.”
The Twins improved to 32-22, ensuring themselves of one of the AL’s top eight records, and will open the playoffs Sept. 29, almost certainly as either the fourth seed, which would mean playing all three games of the first round in Target Field, or the fifth seed, which would mean traveling for those games. The Yankees, who have beaten the Twins in 13 consecutive postseason games dating back to 2004, look increasingly like their first-round opponent.
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“Are they a good team? Yes. Are we a good team? Hell, yes,” Tyler Duffey said. “We’ll see where that road takes us to. If we end up there, I’m sure every one of us welcomes that.”
But first, the Twins get a chance to savor a season in which they overcame multiple injuries and an offensive decline of nearly a run and a half per game, not to mention the challenges of playing during a pandemic, to win at nearly a .600 clip. The improvement in their pitching — the Twins’ team ERA of 3.56 is their best since the designated hitter rule was adopted in 1973 — carried them to the postseason, and easily carried them past the NL Central-leading Cubs, who have scored two runs in two games of this series.
“Having our pitchers go out there and throw the ball the way they have allowed our offense to get in the game and gave us a little time to put runs on the board,” Baldelli said.
Pineda, making his fourth start since returning from a suspension for using a drug-masking agent, struck out only one batter and needed 92 pitches to complete five innings, but he compensated by forcing soft contact during his two times through the batting order. Only in the second inning did he allow a run, when Willson Contreras was hit by a pitch, Jason Heyward hit an infield single and David Bote hit a hard grounder down the third-base line for an RBI double.
Duffey, Matt Wisler and Tyler Clippard followed, and barely allowed the Cubs even to put the ball in play. Wisler struck out six of the seven Cubs he faced.
“We have great pitchers,” Sano said. “I told our pitchers they’ve been doing a great job, and that’s what I’m really happy about, because this is a little crazy year for everybody.”
The Twins, meanwhile, enjoyed their biggest offensive eruption in a road game since Aug. 12 at Milwaukee, and they did it against a righthander, Alec Mills, who just pitched a no-hitter at Miller Park last Sunday. Rosario took care of any thoughts of a repeat performance in the first inning, crushing a first-pitch fastball for his 12th homer of 2020.
The Twins only had two baserunners over the next four innings, but a leadoff walk to Alex Avila in the sixth cost Mills when Rosario looped a two-out liner into right field, breaking the 1-1 tie.
The Twins put the game out of reach in the seventh, starting with Sano’s blast, his 13th, onto Waveland Avenue beyond the left-field bleachers. When Max Kepler followed with a double that got lodged in the ivy in left field, Mills’ night was over, and the Twins’ party began. They racked up three more hits during the inning off relievers Josh Osich and Duane Underwood, got some help when shortstop Javier Baez bobbled a grounder and bounced throw home too late to force out Kepler, and scored five runs.
Donaldson added the final run in the ninth, his sixth home run of the season.
“A lot of things went right,” Baldelli said.