Hayes: Target Field crowd finally delivers, provides Twins the atmosphere they deserve

MINNEAPOLIS — First, Kevin Gausman got peppered with boos by a boisterous, sellout crowd late Tuesday afternoon at Target Field. Shortly after that, those jeers turned to cheers.

And with that, along with an extraordinarily heavy dose of late-inning uproar rarely heard at Target Field, Minnesota Twins fans managed to play a significant role as the team ended the streak that was seemingly impossible to end with a 3-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays in front of 38,450.

Nearly 7,000 days after the skid began, a raucous crowd that witnessed the end of the Twins’ 18-game postseason losing streak was nearly as big of a topic with Twins players as was Royce Lewis, who became the team’s first player to blast two homers in the same playoff game since Gary Gaetti in 1987.

“I thought the place was going to split open and melt, like honestly,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said, quoting a Phish song. “It was out of this universe out there on the field. The fans took over the game. They helped us win.”

As beautiful as Target Field is, one of baseball’s premier destinations doesn’t share the same reputation for noise as the dump that preceded it. Whereas the Metrodome was known for its ear-splitting decibels and lousy sight lines, Target Field is considered a bit softer despite its aesthetics.

Over the past six seasons, Twins players privately have lambasted the park at 7th Street and Twins Way for not being loud enough. During the middle of the Bomba Squad’s run in 2019 and many times since, Minnesota Nice and the crowd’s unwillingness to make noise before good things happen are repeatedly brought up in private by players fearful of angering a home crowd they desperately want to support them.

Yet that wasn’t the case Tuesday.

“When I tell you it was electric, it brought that electricity into my body,” said Lewis, who became only the 10th rookie in the history of Major League Baseball to hit at least two homers in a postseason game.

While there were a few lulls in the middle innings, this crowd was supercharged most of the day.

Having been critical of said crowd late last week, I wanted to check in with a Blue Jays reporter for his interpretation. Rogers Centre in Toronto is one of the loudest buildings in baseball, an indoor/outdoor venue that seats more than 50,000 fans who also have gone nearly 30 years without a title. Sound similar?

When we spoke in the middle innings, the reporter thought Twins fans were very good at times and a little quiet in others. After the game concluded, the barrage of noise impressed the visiting scribe.

But he wasn’t the only one.

Byron Buxton, who has played for the Twins since 2015, couldn’t remember a crowd similar to this one. He and several other players noted how it finally felt like the Twins experienced a home crowd similar to the ones they’ve gone up against at Yankee Stadium, in Toronto or at Fenway Park, among others.

“It was fun,” Buxton said. “That was very energetic. You can tell. For me, I felt like (the Blue Jays) were a little bit more uncomfortable. Most people don’t come here and have that kind of crowd. We’re still nice about it, but we were just loud. It makes you very uncomfortable when you’re on the mound or you’re in the outfield and they’re calling your name and whatever they’re saying — you’ve got to stay focused on what you’ve got to do so it makes it a little bit tougher, for sure.”

Twins fans announced their presence with authority almost immediately.

With Gausman wavering in the first inning, Twins fans pounced on the moment. First, they brought a torrent of boos as Gausman repeatedly asked plate umpire Andy Fletcher for new baseballs, four in the span of 26 pitches. Then fans in the left-field bleachers mockingly chanted Gausman’s name.

Gausman said he’s always had an issue with the condition of the baseball. Usually, it’s not as noticeable as it was Tuesday.

“I’m constantly throwing out balls,” Gausman said. “You just notice it because there’s more boos.”

What I noticed more than anything on Tuesday was anticipatory cheering. Fans weren’t waiting to be prodded by scoreboard signs imploring them to be “Unapologetically loud” or “Make noise.”

Sure, there was some of that. But in the late innings, in particular, fans were engaged with every two-strike pitch thrown by Caleb Thielbar, Griffin Jax or Jhoan Duran. They stood and yelled and intensified the atmosphere.

This behavior was the opposite of anything many have experienced in six seasons covering the team. And it was impressive (this is my mea culpa, people).

“I mean, that’s what we play for,” Thielbar said. “We’ve seen it in other places, and it’s fun to see it here. The energy you get, especially on the two-strike pitch, I started to worry a little bit about whether I was going to be able to hear the PitchCom or not, but it came through just fine. I mean, that’s what we play for. That was awesome.”

Make no mistake, the criticism I lobbed was written about only because I’ve heard it over and over and over again through the years. When you travel around the league, you understand what makes a great home-field advantage. You can almost always find those at Dodger Stadium, Oracle Park in San Francisco, Yankee Stadium, in Philadelphia or Boston.

Those places are intimidating, and opposing players receive endless scorn and overwhelming noise at key moments.

Younger fans often mention via social media how they’ve been discouraged at Target Field, repeatedly told to sit down by fans and ushers when standing and cheering for too long.

Players often note how they dislike the crowd waiting for good things to happen and not making their voices heard ahead of time. They suspect fans stay silent in anticipation of the crushing moments that have dogged this fan base for nearly 19 years.

It’s understandable. Two decades of heartbreak and Blair Walsh’s missed field goals can crush the sports fan spirits of an entire region. Before they won their first World Series in 108 years in 2016, Chicago Cubs fans at Wrigley Field held their breath repeatedly during games 3, 4 and 5.

But with a fresh start Tuesday and a heavy dose of Royce magic, Twins fans responded, unlike anything we’ve seen at Target Field.

“It was perfect,” said rookie pitcher Louie Varland, who grew up in North St. Paul and attended his share of Twins games over the years.

As Carlos Correa clutched his young son, Kylo, 75 minutes after the game, he was thrilled with the crowd’s support. After starting his career in Houston, which boasts an excessively loud home park, Correa hopes to see similar traits from a Twins crowd waiting for something to cheer.

He explained why.

“It just gives you a lot of motivation,” Correa said. “When the crowd is into the game, you just get hyped. You feel it. You want to perform for them. We’re not getting away from our plan, but at the same time, we want to go out and get these wins for them. They deserve it. The energy of the fans out of the gate was crazy.

“It was awesome, man. I remember last year, talking to my wife on the couch, sitting at home, and I told her I never want to not be in the playoffs ever again. To be back here with this great organization, with these great fans here in Minnesota, it was special, man. My heart was full out there at shortstop every time I was seeing the towels and everybody on their feet. It was truly special.”

(Photo of the crowd and Royce Lewis celebrating one of his home runs Tuesday: Brace Hemmelgarn / Minnesota Twins / Getty Images)

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