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The Twins Aren’t Just Facing the Yankees in the ALDS. They’re Battling an Astounding Playoff Curse.

Take a trip down Minnesota memory lane with us. But be warned: It’s covered in Yankee glory and the rotting carcasses of Minnesota’s postseason dreams.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The World Series champion Angels were the grand surprise of the 2002 MLB season, but the Twins were a close second. In manager Ron Gardenhire’s first season, Minnesota won 94 games and made the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade, upsetting the 103-win “Moneyball” Athletics in the ALDS and asserting themselves as, perhaps, MLB’s next great team.

Minnesota brimmed with exciting young talent, like Torii Hunter. (And David Ortiz, whom the Twins released that December despite his slugging .500 in 2002. Oops!) A former Rule 5 draft pick named Johan Santana spun a 2.99 ERA in 108 1/3 MLB innings in 2002. And a weak AL Central hadn’t produced a single other team with a winning record, putting the Twins in position to dominate the division for years to come.

Dominate they did, securing five of the next eight division titles, and winning a host of individual awards: two MVPs (for Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer), two Cy Youngs (both for Santana), and a Manager of the Year award for Gardenhire. And yet, that early win against the Athletics proved the Twins’ playoff peak.

Now, in 2019, Minnesota has won its first division title since 2010. Mauer and Morneau are gone; Santana was traded, and last pitched in the majors the same year that the Twins selected Byron Buxton second overall in the draft; Gardenhire last managed in Minnesota a half-decade ago. And Minnesota is still seeking its first playoff series win since 2002. The numbers are damning, and almost unbelievable. The Twins enter the 2019 playoffs having lost 13 consecutive postseason games, tying an MLB record. They have lost 16 of 18 since reaching the ALCS. They haven’t won a home playoff game in that entire period, and nobody who took the field for the last Twins’ playoff win has played an MLB game since 2016.

And just as much as the overall numbers, the specific ways in which Minnesota has lost leads, blown games, and fumbled their way into late-game collapses astound. The 2019 version is a new brand of Twins team—a record-setting collection of sluggers who reached 101 wins and a divisional triumph. But as another ALDS matchup against the dreaded Yankees awaits, it’s worth a look back through recent Twins playoff history to preview what horrors may await this time around. Fair warning, Minnesota fans: This will be painful reading.

2003 ALDS: Yankees 3, Twins 1

A year after the Twins upset a 100-plus-win team in the first round, they started the same way in 2003 against the 101-win Yankees. In Game 1, Santana and four relievers limited New York to one run, which didn’t come until there were two outs in the ninth inning, as Minnesota won 3-1 on the road to take the series lead. Things were looking up for the upstart Twins.

And then they scored one run apiece in three consecutive games, losing by scores of 4-1, 3-1, and 8-1. Over the full series, Minnesota’s hitters slashed .198/.248/.282; all four Yankee starters lasted at least seven innings in their starts, unbothered by the Twins’ feckless bats.

Total number of leads lost: 0
Hitting with RISP: 2-for-22
Joe Mauer tracker: Dominated two minor league levels; played well enough to be named the top prospect in baseball that offseason

2004 ALDS: Yankees 3, Twins 1

The 2004 rematch against New York started the same as the first try. Minnesota won the first game 2-0 on the strength of seven shutout innings from Santana, plus runs courtesy of a Shannon Stewart RBI single and Jacque Jones home run. Once again, things were looking up for the Twins.

And then they fell down, again—that easy win remains the most recent playoff win for the franchise. The Twins squandered two separate early leads in Game 2, but recovered and forced a Mariano Rivera blown save—one of just five in his 96-game postseason career—to push the game to extra innings. There, the Twins gained the advantage because the Yankees had essentially run out of effective pitchers; in came Tanyon Sturtze, owner of an ERA north of 5.00 for three years running, and Minnesota capitalized with a tiebreaking Hunter home run.

The problem came in the bottom of the 12th inning, when closer Joe Nathan, who would finish fourth in AL Cy Young voting that year, emerged for his third inning of the night. “The key for them maybe winning this whole series,” said announcer Jon Miller, “is right here: Nathan’s ability to get through this inning.” He couldn’t. Nathan walked Miguel Cairo and Derek Jeter, then allowed a ground rule double to Alex Rodriguez, and a new relief pitcher surrendered a walk-off sacrifice fly to Hideki Matsui. Minnesota had lost its chance to steal both games in New York; the series was tied.

The Twins lost another lead at home in Game 3, ultimately falling 8-4, and suffered more in Game 4. Pitching on short rest, Santana turned in another gem, allowing one run in five innings, and unheralded Twins like Lew Ford and Henry Blanco jumped all over Yankees starter Javier Vázquez to take yet another early lead. Through seven innings, the Twins led 5-1, but a single-walk-single-strikeout-homer sequence plated four runs for New York, the big blow flying high off the bat of Rubén Sierra and over the right-field wall. In the top of the 11th inning, Rodriguez doubled, stole third, and scored on a wild pitch to give the Yankees a winning margin.

Total number of leads lost: 6
Hitting with RISP: 9-for-32
Joe Mauer tracker: Hit .308/.369/.570 in his MLB debut in 2004, but played just 35 games due to injury and didn’t appear in the playoffs; he’d again enter the 2005 season as the sport’s no. 1 prospect

2006 ALDS: Athletics 3, Twins 0

In 2004, the Twins had exactly as many hits as the Yankees in their playoff series, but didn’t score as many runs. In 2006 against Oakland, the same scenario occurred: Both teams posted 26 hits in the three-game sweep, and Minnesota actually had a higher team on-base percentage, but the Twins hit 1-for-19 with runners in scoring position and never led. Oakland won games 1 and 2 in Minnesota by scores of 3-2 and 5-2, then clinched at home with an 8-3 win for the only series win of the Billy Beane era. Minnesota is so cursed in the playoffs that even other cursed franchises can triumph against the Twins.

Total number of leads lost: 0
Hitting with RISP: 1-for-19
Joe Mauer tracker: Won his first of three batting titles (hitting .347), made his first All-Star team, and finished sixth in MVP voting

2009 ALDS: Yankees 3, Twins 0

From a 2019 vantage point, this series produced probably the most memorable game of the Twins’ last decade and a half of playoff misery. Not Game 1—that proved an easy Yankees win, as New York scored the last seven runs after Minnesota took an early 2-0 lead. But Game 2 was a roller coaster all by itself.

The second game began as an unlikely pitchers duel between Nick Blackburn and A.J. Burnett. Neither team scored in the first five innings, though Minnesota squandered a prime opportunity in the fourth frame. With two outs, Delmon Young on second base, and Carlos Gómez on first, Matt Tolbert grounded a single into right field. Young was set to score easily—except Gómez overran second base, an alert Nick Swisher fielded the ball and threw to the bag, and Jeter tagged Gómez moments before Young could touch home plate. The run didn’t count.

Minnesota eventually took a 3-1 lead into the ninth inning, when Nathan blew another lead in New York. With a runner on first, Rodriguez crushed a fastball into the Yankees bullpen. Two innings later, Mark Teixeira won the game with a walk-off laser to left—but only after the Twins suffered a catastrophic top of the inning. Mauer led off with a single (after a would-be double was ruled foul in a horribly blown call by umpire Phil Cuzzi), and two more singles loaded the bases with no outs. But reliever David Robertson escaped the jam with no damage, setting the stage for Teixeira’s heroics.

If Game 2 brought a disappointing blown lead and a costly baserunning gaffe, well, at least the Twins were prepared for Game 3. That night, Minnesota took a 1-0 lead into the seventh inning, but Rodriguez and Jorge Posada homered off former Yankee Carl Pavano. In the eighth, Jeter and Posada combined to catch Nick Punto rounding third too far on an infield single, snuffing out a Twins threat with no outs. Then New York added two more runs off Nathan, and the Yankees won the game 4-1, and the series in a sweep.

Minnesota ended the series with more hits and a better OBP than New York, but the Yankees clubbed six home runs to the Twins’ zero. The final game in the Metrodome ended in heartbreak.

Total number of leads lost: 4
Hitting with RISP: 8-for-28
Joe Mauer tracker: Led the AL in all three triple-slash categories; added a career-best 28 home runs; received 27 of 28 first-place votes to win the AL MVP award

2010 ALDS: Yankees 3, Twins 0

The Twins played the Yankees again a year later, and the same pattern—within both individual games and the series at large—emerged. In both games 1 and 2, this time with Minnesota as the host, the Twins took early leads; in both games 1 and 2, the Yankees took the lead for good in the seventh inning, and the bullpen threw scoreless frames en route to wins. In Game 3, Phil Hughes threw seven scoreless innings for New York in an easy 6-1 win, securing another Yankees sweep and handing Minnesota a loss in its last playoff game for seven years.

Total number of leads lost: 2
Hitting with RISP: 2-for-18
Joe Mauer tracker: Signed an eight-year, $184 million extension before the season; earned the All-Star/Silver Slugger/Gold Glove trifecta for the third consecutive year; played his last season as a full-time catcher, as he underwent knee surgery following the year and, in 2011, began shifting some of his playing time to first base

2017 Wild Card: Yankees 1, Twins 0

After a long absence, the Twins returned to the playoffs in 2017, with only Mauer and reliever Glen Perkins remaining from the 2010 team. This Minnesota team was the first in MLB history to make the playoffs after losing 100-plus games the previous year, and they started the wild-card contest against their old nemesis with an offensive explosion. Minnesota scored three runs within the first four hitters at Yankee Stadium, thanks to home runs from Brian Dozier and Eddie Rosario, then collected two more hits to drive Yankees starter Luis Severino from the game after just one out.

A lot of good that did, though. Didi Gregorius drilled a three-run homer in the bottom of the first to tie the score, four Yankees relievers combined to allow one run in 8 2/3 innings in an unanticipated bullpen game, and the Twins added another base-running mishap for old times’ sake, too: Rookie Zack Granite, in the game only because center fielder Byron Buxton had injured himself crashing into the wall to catch a Todd Frazier fly ball, somehow missed first base while ostensibly beating out an infield single.

Oh, and the Twins had as many hits as the Yankees. It didn’t matter for runs scored, of course. New York won 8-4, then advanced on a thrilling postseason run all the way to Game 7 of the ALCS.

Total number of leads lost: 1
Hitting with RISP: 0-for-6
Joe Mauer tracker: Hadn’t caught a game, made an All-Star team, or won a leaguewide award in four years; could still hit .300, but was the most underpowered first baseman in the league; would retire when his mega-contract expired just one year later

That’s the recent Twins playoff history in longform. Here it is in shorthand, via a few key facts and figures:

  • Over 18 games, the Twins hit .245/.299/.364 as a team. That’s about the career batting line of Juan Lagares, who is best used as a defensive replacement.
  • With runners in scoring position, they hit 22-for-125, which works out to a .176 average.
  • They scored 2.6 runs per game and allowed 5.1—almost double their own offensive output.
  • The non-Santana starters amassed a combined 6.18 ERA.
  • Nathan posted a 1.87 ERA across more than 400 regular-season innings during his Twins seasons in question. He saw that number rise to 4.70 in the playoffs.
  • The Twins lost every extra-inning game they played, and every one-run game.
  • In the late innings in particular, their offense cratered while the pitching staff imploded:

Innings 1-3: Opponents 26, Twins 18
Innings 4-6: Opponents 29, Twins 17
Innings 7-on: Opponents 38, Twins 12

The sorry results are perhaps best reflected in Mauer’s trajectory. The lifelong Twin packed an entire career into this stretch, from top prospect to MVP to perennial All-Star to club icon on a retirement tour, shuffled all the way down the defensive spectrum. He is, by fWAR, the Twins’ best position player in the past half-century, and he never won a playoff game.

The Twins’ matchup against the Yankees is fitting, in a cosmic sense—of course Minnesota would need to surmount this eternal obstacle if it is to advance, finally, in the playoffs, or at least win a single game. Minnesota’s overall record against the Yankees is the most absurd part of this already absurd scenario. Since 2003, the Twins are, counting both the regular season and playoffs, 37-94 against the Yankees, which translates to a .282 winning percentage or a 46-116 record extrapolated over 162 games. Against all other teams, the Twins have played like an 82-win club.

And that disparity is even more stark when considering only the Twins’ successful years. In 2003, 2004, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2017, and 2019, the Twins have played like a 94-68 team against everyone else—and an unfathomable 36-126 team against the Yankees.

For the most part, the so-called Bomba Squad didn’t participate in those deflating performances. Max Kepler and Mitch Garver and Nelson Cruz may well swagger into Yankee Stadium this weekend, bash a bushel of homers, and turn Minnesota’s historical tides. But those tides are unfathomably strong, and the Twins have already been swept away time and again.

An earlier version of this piece misstated when the Twins moved.