MINNEAPOLIS -- The Twins have grown used to sending their catcher to the All-Star Game in recent years, as Joe Mauer represented the club in the Midsummer Classic six times at that position before moving to first base this season.
But this season, Minnesota has a surprise candidate behind the plate who has been worthy of that honor in veteran Kurt Suzuki.
Suzuki, who is known more for his defense than his offense, is off to a hot start at the plate, as he's hitting .312/.378/.416 with a homer, 10 doubles and 26 RBIs in 35 games. His .312 average and .378 on-base percentage rank second among all catchers, while he leads all backstops in RBIs.
Suzuki has been a pleasant surprise so far, and Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has rewarded him with four starts at designated hitter, and even batted him cleanup on Saturday, which was the first time he'd done that since 2010.
"If you remember Kurt Suzuki when he was with Oakland his first time through, he was one of the better hitters in the league and definitely one of the more clutch hitters in the league," Gardenhire said. "He was solid. He was an RBI guy."
As Gardenhire pointed out, Suzuki did have some solid years offensively with the A's, including in 2009, when he had a career year, hitting .274 with a career-high 15 homers and 88 RBIs.
But Suzuki struggled offensively with the A's and Nationals last season, hitting .232 with five homers and 32 RBIs in 94 games. With Mauer moving to first base, Suzuki ended up signing with Minnesota this offseason on a one-year, $2.75 million deal that now looks like a bargain.
Suzuki has almost reached his RBI total from last season, because he's been getting it done with runners in scoring position, hitting .419/.447/.581 in those situations, with 25 RBIs in 39 plate appearances. He's also fared better with runners in scoring position throughout his career, as he's a career .277/.340/.407 hitter in those situations compared with a .243/.297/.366 line in non-scoring situations.
But Suzuki insists there's nothing to those numbers, as he doesn't change his approach at the plate when he comes up with runners on base and defers the credit to his teammates.
"I try to have good at-bats every time," Suzuki said. "It's just a matter of teammates getting on base before me. That's what it comes down to. You just try to have the same at-bats every time, but it's just a matter of the guys having good at-bats and getting on base."
Suzuki has also been impressive behind the plate, as Twins pitchers feel comfortable throwing to him, especially with his pitch-calling skills and ability to block pitches in the dirt.
"You have to have a catcher you trust," Gardenhire said. "If a guy doesn't trust the catcher, he's not going to make the best pitch. We have a lot of trust in Suzuki back there. Guys know they can bounce those balls. Most of the time, he's going to keep them in front of him."
Closer Glen Perkins offered similar praise for Suzuki. He found himself in a tough situation against the Mariners on Friday with the tying run at third base and one out but was able to get out of the jam by recording the final two outs with his slider because he trusted using it with Suzuki behind the plate.
"I think I threw four sliders with a guy on third base -- he's going to block them," Perkins said. "If you have a guy on third base, you can't just throw one pitch."
Suzuki has also been durable in the early going, starting 30 of the club's 42 games at catcher, and rarely asks for a rest. Gardenhire said he'll be more cautious with Suzuki moving forward, but with the way he's been swinging the bat, it's been hard to bench him even with rookie catcher Josmil Pinto needing his fair share of playing time.
"Suzuki wants to catch every inning of every game," Gardenhire said. "Night game, day game. He's the first person who comes walking in. It's all good and fine this time of year, but what it's going to be like at the All-Star break and after that? So we have to be careful."
But Suzuki isn't worried about breaking down, and said he's just happy he's been able to help the Twins with his RBI production so far..
"I've had a couple years with some good RBI numbers, but definitely coming to a new team, you want to do whatever you can to help the team win," Suzuki said. "It's nice to chip in somehow."