Mauer sets tone as postseason opens

Mauer sets tone as postseason opens

MINNEAPOLIS -- When Target Field sees its first postseason pitch on Wednesday night, it's only fitting that Joe Mauer will be the one behind the plate to catch it.

It will be a special moment for the hometown star who has become the face of the franchise and the guy the Twins will be looking to as their leader during this American League Division Series against the Yankees.

"It's going to be an unbelievable atmosphere," Mauer said as he sat at the podium in front of the media on Tuesday afternoon. "Anytime you are in the playoffs, it's a great atmosphere, especially here in Minnesota. I think we've seen that at the Metrodome. But I think our fans have created a special atmosphere here at Target Field all year long."

Mauer has become one of the most recognizable players in the game, and the Twins' soon-to-be top-paid star after signing an eight-year, $184 million contract extension in Spring Training, but it doesn't mean that all of it has changed Mauer's personality or how he chooses to be a leader. The soft-spoken catcher and St. Paul native doesn't attract attention in the clubhouse by being vocal. He instead makes his presence felt on the field.

"It's my personality," Mauer said. "I'll say something if it needs to be said. But I think my way of doing things is by working hard and leading by example. I think that can be just as effective."

And the Twins are hoping that Mauer can help lead the way on the field this week to help turn around his team's fortunes against the Yankees, who have won all three of their postseason series with the Twins, and carry Minnesota to the AL Championship Series for the first time since 2002.

So does Mauer feel any additional pressure to be the guy to lead the Twins?

"As far as doing anything more, you know, we have a lot of great players here," Mauer said. "I think when we get into trouble, that's when I try to do more than what I need to do. We've got great players on this team, and all around. And you know, I'm confident in those guys and I'm confident in myself."

Mauer's postseason experience has been limited with the Twins suffering three-game sweeps in the two playoff series that he has been a part of, the 2006 ALDS vs. the A's and the 2009 ALDS vs. the Yankees. In those six games (all losses), Mauer has gone 7-for-23 (.304) with a double and an RBI.

And as the Twins get ready to open the ALDS on Wednesday night, Mauer is currently bothered by a sore left knee. His knee is certainly not 100 percent, and it's something that he'll have to play through in the postseason. But despite missing a stretch of nine games toward the end of the season, Mauer doesn't seem concerned about the state of his swing or how his knee is feeling.

"I guess it doesn't matter now, but I am feeling good," Mauer said. "I will be behind the plate and, you know, like I said, I am looking forward to it."

Injuries took a toll on Mauer in the first half of the season. He batted .293 before the All-Star break, which would be considered a solid start for most hitters, but they were pedestrian numbers by the high standards that the 27-year-old catcher has set for himself. And there were questions as to what was wrong with the reigning AL MVP.

Since returning from the break, Mauer has turned things around offensively, and perhaps it's no surprise that the Twins' second-half run coincided with his hot streak. In 60 second-half games, Mauer batted .373 with a .447 on-base percentage. It raised his season average to .327, which ranked him third in the AL. And with Mauer's surge helping to bolster Minnesota, the club captured its sixth AL Central title in the last nine years a full 12 days before the end of the regular season.

Now the Twins will see if Mauer can deliver the same kind of lift in the postseason.

"Let's face it -- he's in the top five players in the game," said teammate Jim Thome. "Guys like that always rise to the top."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.