Surviving a game of failure: Twins staff tests its ability to forget Yankees thrashings

NEW YORK — I don’t know what’s more likely: that major league relief pitchers are just wired differently, so that while the rest of us are still thinking about the time in fourth grade we spelled “tomorrow” wrong on the white board they’ve already forgotten about a disastrous outing that cost their club a playoff game (against the New York Yankees, of all teams); or that they just know better than to say so if it’s still gnawing away at them in the clubhouse after losing a 4-hour-and-15-minute marathon.

The last time the Minnesota Twins won a postseason game was Oct. 5, 2004. That was also in New York, but the Yankees went on to win that series. In fact, the Twins have been eliminated from the playoffs by the Yankees in 2003, 2004, 2009, 2010 and 2017. In 2006, they were swept by the A’s. But this is a new year and a new Twins team and in this 2019 American League Division Series clash of the Bombas vs. the Bombers, the former struck first with a couple of solo shots in Game 1.

The lead didn’t last long. Twins starter José Berríos gave up three runs in four innings which might have been fine except that then rookie manager Rocco Baldelli turned to his predominantly rookie bullpen, which not-so-promptly proceeded to give up another seven runs and put the game out of reach. All four of the relief pitchers who came into Game 1 were making their postseason debut; three of them gave up at least two runs.

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Saturday was more of the same. The Yankees jumped out to an 8-0 lead in the first three innings, including a grand slam by Didi Gregorius, en route to an 8-2 victory to put them up 2-0 in the series. And just like that, the Twins staff has given up 18 runs in their first two days of postseason play. If they have any hope of recovering (or just avoiding yet another sweep by the Yankees) they will need to figure out how to get out of New York without taking any scar tissue with them.

“Definitely not how I saw my first postseason appearance going but felt good, felt ready and hopefully it’s something I can build off next time,” said the lone veteran in the group, Kyle Gibson, who walked the bases loaded before giving up a three-run double to DJ LeMahieu in Game 1.

Sure, of course. Except I wanted to know how he planned to go about building off the abject disappointment without internalizing it.

“You just have to move on,” Gibson said. “Baseball’s kind of built on failure. Every game there’s going to be a pitcher or a hitter that has the chance to get the job done and they don’t get it done. And today I was one of those guys, unfortunately. It’s just part of the job. Some days you don’t have it and some days it doesn’t go how you want it to go.”

It’s hard to tell whether he’s falling back on saying those things because they’re cliches (and it’s close to midnight, and he still hasn’t had dinner, and someone wants to prod at the pathos of public embarrassment). Or if, as is so often the case, those phrases became baseball cliches because they’re the best way of describing the selective memory and supreme self-assurance that you’ll get ‘em next time that it takes to succeed in this sport. After all, these are people who actively pursued a life where the score resets each night. From the outside we expect October to bring a new set of stakes and objectively it does. But baseball — and pitching in particular — is such a delicate mental game it only makes sense that in order to perform with the same level of talent and poise that they had all summer, pitchers — relief pitchers in particular, for whom the situation may change but their composure cannot — have to project the same blank slate from which they always start.

Given that baseball is such a game of failure, do you have strategies for getting past that? I asked Zack Littell, who earned the loss Friday after he walked Aaron Judge, hit Brett Gardner, and was pulled before recording an out. Both of them came around to score.

“I think just knowing that baseball is game of failure,” he repeated back. And the striking part, to me, is that this comforts him.

“No one here expects to be perfect and no one here is perfect. So I think knowing that and just sort of accepting that. Moving forward after a night like tonight, there’s nothing to do, it happens, there’s nothing I can do about it now. Just on to the next one.”

New York, NY-October 5: Twin reliever Tyler Duffey reacted after New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius, rear, knocked a grand slam home run in the third inning. (Photo by Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
New York, NY-October 5: Twin reliever Tyler Duffey reacted after New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius, rear, knocked a grand slam home run in the third inning. (Photo by Jeff Wheeler/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

“Perfect,” or the pursuit of it, is what Littell thinks got him in trouble Friday night. The Yankees’ patience with good pitches and the way they worked walks made him feel like he had to throw something better than good. And his plan moving forward is simply to stop putting so much pressure on himself.

“Tomorrow the only thing I can do is go back out there and throw it over,” he said. On Saturday, he recorded an effective, uneventful, ultimately meaningless out. “Here’s my stuff, here’s what I’ve got. If you can hit it, hit it. If not, get out of the box.”

“At the end of the day, it’s a game,” Gibson said.

I mean, he’s not wrong! But it’s humbling, or maybe just awkward, to feel like the guys on the field have a better perspective about what’s really at stake here than I do. That this is a better way to bounce back from a bad outing or any kind of professional struggle is obvious. That it’s possible to have mental blinders to unproductive thoughts and a relentless ability to try again tomorrow is what amazes me.

They have to be born with it, or come by it naturally in some sense, but also there’s Wes Johnson.

“I never really believed in coaching off the negative,” says Johnson, who’s the first pitching coach to make the jump from college straight to the majors after the Twins hired him away from the University of Arkansas this past offseason. “When we throw a pitch and it gets hit over the fence, everybody in this building knows that wasn’t a good pitch. Why do I need to come pile on?”

Johnson promotes perspective — sure a postseason game at Yankee Stadium is rocking but you should hear an SEC school on gameday, those 15,000 people are right on top of you so it gets pretty loud — and positivity. He’s real big on video, but not just for studying mechanics.

“I want them to go see themselves have success. We’ll watch some video of themselves striking some guys out or executing a good pitch in the right count.”

He’s found his demeanor match in Randy Dobnak, the 24-year-old who is best known for driving an Uber this offseason. After going undrafted out of college, Dobnak went from Indy ball to clinching the division for the Twins in under two years.

Sometime between that clinch and this weekend, Dobnak got married, but he also threw a bullpen. Because this is the big leagues, every time the ball hit the dirt someone produced a new one for him to work with. And Dobnak couldn’t help but marvel at how far he’d come.

“You know, coach, a couple years ago in college, we were in the woods chasing every foul ball and if we didn’t get them all we had to run,” he told Johnson. “Now a ball hits the dirt and I get another one.”

So yeah, “He’s got a great perspective,” as Johnson said.

And on Saturday, after opening the season at Class A, Dobnak started the Twins’ second postseason game of the year. Just as it had been for most of the Minnesota pitchers who came before and after him, Yankee Stadium in October was the stuff of nightmares. His final line was four earned runs in two innings, a loss for him and the team.

The night before he even took the mound, back when it was all still exciting opportunities and wondering whether it would ever sink in, Dobnak took a moment to reflect on how he’s managed to move past the many struggles in his short but eventful baseball career.

“I don’t really let the past affect me at all,” he said. “If I give up 100 runs in one game, the next game I’m gonna do the same thing I’ve done in the previous however many games.”

That mentality probably won't save the Twins — someone always loses a must-win game no matter how much they have moved on from the previous loss — but as the Twins head home to Minnesota in search of their first win against the Yankees in 15 years, it’s the right mentality to have.

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