MINNEAPOLIS — Joe Mauer is the only Minnesota Twins player still swinging from the last time the team was in the postseason.
After three years of injury-induced misery, that sweet, left-handed stroke has been dialed in like the days of old, one of the biggest reasons the Twins have rebounded to end a six-year playoff drought.
Mauer hit .305 this season, the first time he has crested that plateau since 2013 and has emerged as a Gold Glove-caliber first baseman this season for the unexpectedly resurgent Twins, who face the Yankees in New York on Tuesday night in the AL wild card playoff
“It’s felt good just because we’ve been winning,” Mauer said. “I haven’t been able to dump champagne on my teammates’ heads in seven years, so it’s been a lot of fun.”
Mauer’s renaissance has coincided with several others on the roster this season to help the Twins become the first team to qualify for the playoffs after losing 100 games in the previous season. Byron Buxton has re-emerged as a budding young star after looking overwhelmed at the plate in April, Kyle Gibson gave the team some quality innings in the starting rotation in August after being demoted to the minors and Ervin Santana put a suspension for taking a banned substance last season behind him and made his second All-Star appearance.
Brian Dozier has topped 30 homers in a season for the second straight year, Eddie Rosario has been a consistent force in the middle of the lineup over the second half of the season and utility man Eduardo Escobar has hit 21 home runs.
“It’s been a fairly balanced contribution offensively,” manager Paul Molitor said. “When you have that many people that have had good years, it just stretches your lineup out and you’re not relying on a couple guys every day because everyone has stepped up at different times.”
Seeing Mauer get back to being a dangerous hitter carries a certain extra boost for the Twins. The soft-spoken St. Paul native was a legend in high school, the No. 1 overall draft pick and a star almost from the moment he reached the majors for the Twins. His first nine full seasons in the league were as good as any catcher has ever had — three batting titles, an MVP and six All-Star appearances, a .324 batting average and .466 slugging percentage.
He started an eight-year, $184 million contract in 2011 as the aw-shucks of a franchise admired across the majors.
The production dropped sharply from 2014-16 — .267 batting average, .380 slugging percentage — when leg and concussion issues turned him into a singles-hitting first baseman. The Twins plummeted down the standings as well, and Mauer was often the target of local derision with a $23 million target on his back.
So the Twins set about with a plan to try to get the 34-year-old Mauer back to a healthy place, a combination of days off and turns at DH that they hoped would keep his legs strong and his bat quick.
“He was very open-minded about doing what was best for him and the team,” Molitor said. “I think it worked out really well.”
He played in 141 games this season, posted his highest average and slugging percentage (.417) since 2013, drove in more runs (71) than he has since 2012 and hit more doubles (36) than he has since 2010.
“Sometimes early on especially when you’re feeling pretty good, you want to get in there that day,” Mauer said. “But you look at the bigger picture I think it’s paid off. It’s tough for me at times, because you want to be in there every day, but I think the way we went about it, kind of pulling me back a little bit, was a good thing too.”
Mauer’s resurgence only adds to the confidence the Twins have as they stare down their playoff foils in New York. The Yankees are 9-1 against the Twins in the last three postseason meetings.
“He always gets on base,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “No matter where his stats are, bounce-back year, good years, bad years, he always gets on base. That’s where we’re at as far as evaluating a player.”
What has followed has been a season that Mauer called the most fun he’s ever had in a Twins uniform.
“Just the atmosphere every day,” Mauer said. “Even ever since day one of spring training, it’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a heck of a ride, and we set out a lot of goals this year. We were able to achieve one of them, and hopefully we can keep it going.”
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