On Oct. 5, 2004, the Minnesota Twins began their second consecutive ALDS bout against the New York Yankees. Both starters tossed seven strong innings, but left fielder Shannon Stewart’s RBI single in the third and right fielder Jacque Jones’ solo homer in the sixth off Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Mike Mussina became the difference in a 2-0 Twins victory. That road triumph on a weekday night in the Bronx marked the last time Minnesota won a postseason game until last Wednesday, when they silenced the Toronto Blue Jays 3-1 at Target Field.
Across a 19-year span, the Twins had lost a league-record 18 straight postseason contests and been swept five times. Four of those sweeps came in the best-of-five American League Division Series, and the Yankees quickly ended Minnesota’s World Series aspirations in three of those series. The Twins had the offense to compete in the American League—Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer both won AL MVP, and the team set the current single-season longball record in 2019—but they just did not have enough pitching.
Following that road victory in the 2004 ALDS, two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana had the longest outing of any Minnesota starter with eight innings of one-run ball in 2006, and righty Kenta Maeda had the lone scoreless outing in five frames in 2020. Only twice in that same span, one being Santana’s eight-inning gem, did the entire Twins’ pitching staff allow three runs or less in a game. No matter how many wins they had in the regular season, including four campaigns with 90+, they could not take victory in any capacity in the postseason.
That all changed across two eventful days in downtown Minneapolis. With their fans hungry to witness a postseason win in game one, former first-overall pick Royce Lewis belted homers in his first two career postseason at-bats, and righty Pablo López surrendered one run in 5.2 innings for a 3-1 win. Closer Jhoan Durán collected the save in that contest with two punchouts, then one-upped himself the next night by striking out the side in game two.
Before that all happened, Blue Jays manager John Schneider took out former Twin José Berríos in the fourth and paid for his mistake as Minnesota’s offense drove in both of their runs off lefthander Yusei Kikuchi that same inning. Despite getting outhit in both contests, two offensive sparks successfully secured the Twins’ first postseason series victory since 2002, when they upset the Moneyball Oakland Athletics in five games in the ALDS.
Uttering a sentence about Minnesota winning a postseason series, let alone one postseason game, sounds about as peculiar as a League Championship Series not featuring at least one team from a certain division. Since the Wild Card era began in 1995, the AL East has been the best division in baseball with more World Series titles (9) and World Series appearances (13) than any other division. Out of the 28 postseasons played between 1995 and 2022, the AL East had at least one representative in the ALCS all but five times and filled both spots on five different occasions.
With the 90-72 Texas Rangers dismantling the 99-win Rays and 100-win Baltimore Orioles in consecutive postseason rounds, 2023 marks the sixth time in the Wild Card era that the AL East will not have a team in the ALCS and the first since 2011. Since the last time the Rangers reached that round and won the AL pennant, neither the winner-take-all Wild Card Game nor the best-of-three Wild Card Series existed, and three teams had postseason droughts beginning before 2000. Just as strange as not seeing an AL East team compete for the pennant, the division has combined for an abysmal 3-17 record since last year, with New York’s Game Five victory over the Cleveland Guardians in the ALDS marking their most recent triumph.
Three of the 12 teams in the postseason ended droughts of 5+ years, but that does not exempt some teams that did not qualify from breaking trends. Between long-term extensions to their stars and acquiring top talent, the Yankees, New York Mets and San Diego Padres combined for an Opening Day payroll of $840 million. Those three clubs won 239 out of 486 possible games (a sub .500 winning percentage), finished no better than third in their division and recorded at least five fewer victories in 2023 than they did in 2022. As one might expect, all of them underperformed, and none of them qualified for the postseason.
That performance-based phenomenon had not happened since 2008, when the Yankees, Mets and Detroit Tigers each spent over $135 million on their Opening Day payrolls and missed the postseason. Those three teams won a combined 252 games 15 years ago, with both New York teams going 89-73 and Detroit finishing an underwhelming 74-88 despite finishing fourth in the league with 200 longballs.
Meanwhile, two of the teams that had one of the five lowest Opening Day payrolls qualified for the postseason in the same year, marking the first time that had happened in a 162-game campaign since 2018. Oakland and the Milwaukee Brewers won 193 games (which included a Game 163 at Wrigley Field), not far off from the 199 combined games that Baltimore and Tampa Bay won in a competitive AL East division.
2023 will forever be remembered as a season of change, whether because of the implementation of the pitch clock, the banning of the shift or an increased base size. While those and Ronald Acuña Jr.’s 40-70 campaign are the top things fans will remember when asked about the season 20 years from now, there are many other changes that will make 2023 one of the best in league history. The adage goes that there are three things guaranteed in life, but as a dynamic regular season and electric postseason have proven, the only guarantees may be death and taxes.