MINNEAPOLIS — Summoned into the game with Twins runners on second and third base and only one out, Erik Swanson's first four pitches to Joey Gallo badly missed the strike zone. Consider it a game-saving semi-intentional walk for the Blue Jays.
Gallo jogged to first base, and the Twins' rally abruptly died, as it almost always does this season, from an overabundance of baserunners. Michael A. Taylor took a called third strike — or at least, home plate umpire Bruce Dreckman said he did — and Donovan Solano grounded out, dooming the Twins to their sixth consecutive series-opening loss, 3-1 to Toronto at Target Field.
The missed opportunity to tie the game continued one of the most mystifying, random traits of the 2023 Twins: Their failure to hit with the bases loaded. Saturday will mark two weeks since their most recent single in that situation; they are 0 for 12 with a walk and no other RBIs with runners on every base since then.
In literally every other configuration of runners on base, the Twins are average or better, hitting at least .234 in each. With runners on first and third, they collectively are .391 hitters, better than every AL team but Texas. But add that third baserunner, and you suffocate their offense. They are hitting just .111, 5 for 45 on the season, and are the only team in the game without an extra-base hit.
That inexplicable habit marred what was an otherwise intriguing pitching duel between Kevin Gausman, a former All-Star right-hander making his 239th big league start, and Louie Varland, making his 11th. Gausman had command problems all night, walking five batters, his most in nearly two years, but kept them from being a problem, mostly, by striking out eight.
Varland's problem was more damaging: For the fourth time in seven starts this year, he allowed at least a pair of home runs. The rookie right-hander's outing was spoiled in a seven-pitch sequence in the third inning.
With two outs, Kevin Kiermaier bashed a 1-2 slider 400 feet into the right-field seats, his fourth of the year, for the game's first run. George Springer followed three pitches later with a double into the right-field corner. And three pitches later, Varland left another slider in the middle of the plate. Bo Bichette pounded it 424 feet to straightaway center, the night's only big inning.
The Blue Jays, playing before a large and noisy crowd of Canadians among the 25,061 fans in the building, might have had a couple more if not for some questionable baserunning. Springer's leadoff double to start the game amounted to nothing when he strayed too far off third base on Vladimir Guerrero Jr.'s grounder to Carlos Correa at short. Correa tagged his former Astros teammate out, then fired the ball to first base, where Guerrero couldn't get back in time.
And in the fifth inning, Kiermaier hit a looping line drive into left field that took a strange bounce past Alex Kirilloff for a triple. But he too got too far off the bag when Springer hit a grounder at third baseman Kyle Farmer, who tagged him out.
Still, those three runs were plenty against the Twins, who went 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position. After Gausman walked Kirilloff and Edouard Julien in the sixth inning, Kyle Garlick hit a one-out double into the left-field corner, scoring Kirilloff. Jays manager John Schneider lifted Gausman for Soloman, who immediately walked Gallo, setting up the inevitable.
Taylor worked the count to 3-2, and believed he had walked when Soloman's pitch dipped under the strike zone. But Dreckman ruled it a strike, and though Taylor expressed his disagreement with the call, he dropped to 0 for 5 with bases loaded.