CHICAGO -- Joe Mauer doesn't show emotion with regularity. So perhaps it was a little surprising for his teammates when the catcher, after hitting a three-run homer off White Sox starter Gavin Floyd to give the Twins a lead in the fifth inning on Wednesday, came back to the dugout and was slapping hard high-fives with anyone in his path. "That's as emotional as I've ever seen him," Twins starter Brian Duensing said after the game. "He was really fired up." Perhaps it was because Mauer, like the rest of the Twins, has started to see the light at the end of this American League Central race. And it seemed that a victory on Wednesday night over Chicago at U.S. Cellular Field would all but extinguish the remaining hopes of the White Sox to get back in this fight.
Thanks to Mauer's big home run that broke open a scoreless game, the Twins were able to cruise to a 9-3 victory that secured the series win and pushed Minnesota's lead in this division race to eight games. The magic number for the Twins to clinch the division is now down to 10. "It's great when you're winning. It's even better when different people are doing it every night," Mauer said. "That's what it takes to win. Tonight was my night, but tomorrow could be someone else. That's how you win ballgames." The Twins have been the hottest team since the All-Star break with a Major League-best 41-16 record over that span. It's no surprise that Mauer has played a big role in that success with his second-half surge, which came after a disappointing first half for the catcher, if only by the extremely high standards that he'd set for himself in previous seasons. Mauer has certainly delivered offensively in the first two games of the Twins' final series against the White Sox, going 6-for-9 with three runs scored and three RBIs. It's a continuation of the success that Mauer has had against Chicago all year. He's 15-for-27 with four doubles and two home runs at U.S. Cellular Field this season and is 30-for-66 overall for a .455 average against the White Sox. "Mauer has been there pretty much the whole year for us," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "His numbers pretty much speak for themselves and what he does for this baseball team. We've had some guys with some pretty decent years and guys that have picked us up with the injury to [Justin Morneau] and Mauer is right at the top of the list. And he's leading the way right now." There is no question that Mauer's biggest hit of the series was the home run. With two outs in the fifth inning, Denard Span and Orlando Hudson hit back-to-back singles to bring Mauer to the plate. On a 1-0 pitch from Floyd, Mauer belted his ninth home run of the season and his first in 99 plate appearances. His last three homers have come against the White Sox, and the last two have been off Floyd. "It definitely felt good," Mauer said of his home run. "I was looking middle in for a pitch up in the zone and luckily I got one." Up until the home run, Duensing and Floyd had been locked in a tight battle. But Mauer's home run was the start of some offensive support the Twins would provide their left-hander. Following Mauer's three-run homer in the fifth, the Twins would score three runs in each of the next two innings. J.J. Hardy and Span each had RBI singles in the sixth and Jim Thome added a two-run single in the seventh to help Minnesota build a 9-2 lead. Duensing said he had to mentally battle through his six-inning outing, although he allowed just two runs on nine hits while throwing 95 pitches. He didn't give up a run until the sixth inning when Carlos Quentin hit a two-run homer to cut the Twins lead to 6-2. The left-hander certainly provided his team with another solid start, as he improved his record to 6-1 with a 2.25 ERA in 10 starts since being moved from the bullpen to the rotation on July 23. And Gardenhire assured that Duensing isn't going anywhere either. "I don't think he's going to end up in the bullpen anymore," Gardenhire said. "I think he's probably solidified himself as a starter at least in our eyes. He's in the rotation, he's going to be in the rotation and I think our future is pretty bright with him in it." The Twins have gone 12-5 against the White Sox this season and with Wednesday's victory, they've won all six of the series between the two clubs. And following this latest victory, Minnesota's push for its sixth division title in nine seasons is starting to look like it's closer to becoming reality. "In the back of your mind, you always think if we lose any game against any team, we are going to find ourselves in trouble," said White Sox third baseman Omar Vizquel. "We couldn't make a move here against the team in front of us. And that's the only way to get close to them is to try to win." As for the Twins (87-58), they are trying not to focus too much on the numbers. In addition to closing in on a division title, the club is now nearing the possibility of holding the best overall record in the American League as they sit just a game behind the Rays (88-57) and a half-game behind the Yankees (88-58). But while the team is trying not to look further ahead than its next game and trying to complete a sweep in Chicago, the Twins are starting to recognize that this race is getting closer to being over. "Some of us know it's there. I'm sure if you ask some guys they'll say they're not paying attention," Duensing said. "When you're a starter and you don't throw for four days, you start thinking about that kind of stuff. We know where we're at right now. We just have to keep playing good baseball and get it done."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.