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 on Saturday, 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 did the rest, carrying the Twins to an 8-1 victory and their third postseason invitation in four years.
The Twins improved to 32-22 on the season, insuring 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.
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 Cubs, who have scored two runs in two games of this series.
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 he hit Willson Contreras with a pitch, surrendered an infield hit by Jason Heyward, and watched David Bote hit a hard grounder down the third-base line for an RBI double.
Tyler Duffey, Matt Wisler and Tyler Clippard followed, and barely allowed the Cubs even to put the ball in play. Duffey whiffed Kyle Schwarber to end the sixth inning, Clippard got Contreras to open the ninth, and Wisler struck out six of the seven Cubs he faced in the seventh and eighth.
The Twins, meanwhile, enjoyed their biggest offensive eruption in a road game since Aug. 12 in Milwaukee, and they did it against a right-hander, Alec Mills, who pitched a no-hitter last Sunday. Rosario took care of any thoughts of a repeat performance in the first inning, crushing a 90-mph first-pitch fastball onto the tarp covering the right-field bleachers, his 12th homer of 2020.
Mills kept the Twins quiet for the next four innings, allowing only two baserunners, but a leadoff walk to Al Avila in the sixth cost him when Rosario looped a liner over Bote’s head and 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 Cubs relievers Josh Osich and Duane Underwood, got some help when shortstop Javier Baez bobbled a grounder and bounced a throw home too late to force out Kepler, and scored five runs.
It could have been even more impressive, but the Twins’ final two outs of the inning were thrown out on the bases.
Donaldson added the final run in the ninth, his sixth home run of the season.
©2020 Star Tribune (Minneapolis)