Minnesota Shuts Down Toronto’s Bats, Advances to ALDS

Minnesota Twins
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Whatever happens to the Twins for the rest of the playoffs, at least there won’t be any more talk about laundry-based curses. After five shutout innings from starter Sonny Gray, the Twins continued to keep the Jays’ bats silent en route to a 2–0 win in Game 2 to clinch the wild card series.

If nothing else, Wednesday’s game was a showcase of station-to-station baseball that’s generally unheard of these days. While a certain former All-Star shortstop broadcaster spent much of the game bemoaning Toronto trying to hit for power rather than stringing base hits together, the latter is the one thing the Jays were actually able to do, collecting nine singles on the day. But with the exception of Santiago Espinal, out at second on Matt Chapman’s double-play grounder in the sixth, all Toronto runners finished their innings stranded. The Twins didn’t do any better at hitting for extra bases, but aided by a walk allowed by José Berríos and then another by his controversial replacement, Yusei Kikuchi, their singles came at an opportune moment.

This was only the 21st game in playoff history to feature no extra-base hits, but only three games had more combined hits than the 16 for the Jays and Twins. Those were all higher-scoring affairs — two had 11 runs, and the third had a combined nine — so you can argue that there has never been a playoff game in which the absence of doubles, triples and homers was felt more.

But it’s not the lack of pop that will be the lasting memory of this game. Instead, it’s Toronto manager John Schneider’s decision to pull Berríos in the fourth inning after allowing a leadoff walk to Game 1 hero Royce Lewis. The obvious idea here was that with a runner on first in a scoreless game, there would be a benefit to treating Kikuchi — in the bullpen because the wild card round is only three games — as a second starter who had a favorable matchup with lefty hitters Max Kepler and Alex Kirilloff coming up (or at least swapped out for pinch-hitters). Further affecting that calculation was the fact that Kikuchi has significant platoon splits. As of the mid-September run of ZiPS, only two established starting pitchers had a better lefty-killing platoon projection: Andrew Abbott and Ranger Suárez.

The problem is what may have been an uncontroversial move in the sixth or seventh inning is going to raise more eyebrows in the fourth. The natural comparison would be to Kevin Cash’s decision to remove Blake Snell in the sixth inning of Game 6 of the 2020 World Series. But that was an easier case to make, with Snell not known for going deep into games and the Dodgers starting their third go-around in the batting order. Berríos was pulled after only 12 batters and 47 pitches.

Schneider kept things rather vague in his post-game conference.

We had a few different plans in place. José was aware of it; he had electric stuff. Tough to take him out. I think, with the way they’re constructed, you want to utilize your whole roster. And it didn’t work out.

It’s one of those moves that would look awful if it failed but wouldn’t earn significant plaudits if it did. In the 2021 World Series, Brian Snitker pulled Ian Anderson after five innings of no-hit ball in order to bring in A.J. Minter with lefties Michael Brantley and Yordan Alvarez on the horizon. The Braves won the game and the championship, and practically nobody mentioned it since.

As Schneider noted, it didn’t work. Kikuchi threw several high-effort sliders, hitting 90 mph, but he was all over the zone, including a fastball that even Javier Báez wouldn’t offer at. A Donovan Solano walk followed by Carlos Correa’s single put the game’s first and final runs on the scoreboard. Kikuchi escaped the inning before the damage got worse, but those two runs proved to be the difference.

If you had to choose one moment of this game to serve as the one that haunts Blue Jays into the future, though, it’s not when Schneider called for Kikuchi; it was Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s blunder on the base paths in the top of the fifth. With Guerrero on second and George Springer on third after a Sonny Gray wild pitch, Vlad took too generous of a lead at second, and Gray punished him severely.

Losing the tie baserunner in scoring position is always brutal in this position, but it felt especially so at that point in the game, coming off a deflating moment the previous inning. The Jays were aggressive all game against Gray, resulting in 11 swings-and-misses, and that felt like their best opportunity to get those runs back.

After Louie Varland relieved Gray in the sixth, the Jays put together three hits — the third, an Espinal infield single, not being enough to drive in the runner on second — to load the bases for Chapman. But Caleb Thielbar got him to ground into the double play, and that was basically all she wrote for Toronto’s 2023 season. There was one last brief moment of hope after another Espinal single, this one off Jhoan Duran, with one out in the ninth, but Duran proceeded to extinguish it in matter-of-fact fashion, whiffing Chapman on three curves and then Daulton Varsho on three fastballs.

While there will no doubt be calls in Toronto for the heads of Schneider and the villainous stathead puppetmasters supposedly controlling his every move, the game highlighted a constant problem for the Jays this year, and one that was unexpected coming into the season: the missing offense. After finishing second in the AL in runs scored in 2022, Toronto dropped to eighth in 2023 despite the addition of Brandon Belt and the stunning debut of Davis Schneider. This was never supposed to be a mediocre offensive team, but it was, and now the Jays have to replace Chapman and figure out how to get another big season out of Guerrero.

When you lose 2–0, I’d submit that the offense is always primarily at fault, not any pitching change; with zero runs, the Jays wouldn’t have done any worse if Mayor McCheese had relieved Berríos. But history isn’t written by the losers and is definitely unconcerned with being fair, and Game 2 of the 2023 AL Wild Card Series will always be the Yusei Kikuchi Game.

For the Twins, practically everything that happens now is gravy. They’ve dispelled two curses — though they really need to win a series against the Yankees to avenge fully the ghosts of past losses — and get two days off before starting an even bigger challenge than the Jays: the reigning world champion Astros.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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6 months ago

Why not the Twins? We’ve seen worse teams win the whole thing. Hell, this team is better than the ’87 championship team, from top to bottom.
Also, the number of Phish references during the broadcast honestly stirred my soul. It is hilarious and also completely unsurprising that Alex Rodriguez has literally no idea who Phish are.
Whatever you do, take care of your shoes!

6 months ago
Reply to  sirpuffmcdrunk

They’re more than just a “Default Central Division Champ” team. Above-average pitching and no glaring holes in their lineup. Wouldn’t shock me at all to see them represent the AL in the World Series.

6 months ago
Reply to  sirpuffmcdrunk

We’re definitely overlooked for being in the AL Central, but the Twins are a genuinely well-constructed, well-rounded team that I would be delighted to see make a run for the world series.

6 months ago
Reply to  sirpuffmcdrunk

They’re pretty well constructed for a 5 game series. They can start Ryan on Saturday, Lopez on regular rest Sunday, Gray, Madea and then Lopez again on full rest in a potential Game 5 on Friday.

This rotation is good. Not flashy but effective all year.

Last edited 6 months ago by cowdisciple
6 months ago
Reply to  cowdisciple

I think we are more likely to see Ober added to the roster as a Game 4 starter, leaving Maeda in the pen to piggyback.

6 months ago
Reply to  etcp

Maybe? It seemed like Ober was at the bottom of that pecking order down the stretch. Either way they should add him, because they’re going to need somebody on hand who can soak up 4 innings in the event of a short start. I have about an equal level of confidence in Maeda and Ober (they’re both pretty good!).

Last edited 6 months ago by cowdisciple
6 months ago
Reply to  sirpuffmcdrunk

Getting through the Astros is going to be tough, but if they can do that their pitching is deep enough that they should be in good shape against whoever wins the Rangers – Orioles slugfest. I think “why not the Twins” is a good way to put it—they’re not the favorites or anything close to it but if they did win it all there the postmortems would have no shortage of reasons why we shouldn’t have counted them out.

Last edited 6 months ago by sadtrombone
John Wickmember
6 months ago
Reply to  sirpuffmcdrunk

thoroughly unsurprising that a guy with the handle “sirpuffmcdrunk” is a phan