Wilderness years over, Joe Mauer returns to postseason with 2017 Twins
CLEVELAND — The last time the visitors' clubhouse at Progressive Field saw a champagne celebration, it was the 2016 Chicago Cubs toasting the end of a 108-year World Series championship drought.
The celebration the wild-card Twins held as Wednesday turned into Thursday was no less meaningful to those in the middle of its frenzied swirl. As Joe Mauer watched his younger teammates hoot, holler and spray each other with bubbly, the Twins' 34-year-old first baseman wore a proud smile.
"Every year I go down to spring training, this is the goal," he said early Thursday morning, Sept. 28. "This is what we play for, so I'm excited we were able to do that."
After winning American League Central titles three times in a five-year span from 2006-10, Mauer was part of teams that averaged 94.2 losses over the next six seasons. There would be just one winning season in that span, an 83-win year in 2015, as the Twins lost 565 times, trailing only the Houston Astros in most losses by any big-league franchise.
Heading into 2017, expectations were low once again, for Mauer and a team entering its first season with a new front-office combo. When was the first time Mauer thought the postseason was possible?
"If you ask a lot of us in here, pretty early on," he said. "Especially the veteran guys that have been on teams that have been to postseason. I can remember when we went to Baltimore pretty early in the season (a three-game sweep of the Orioles from May 22-24), we felt pretty good at that point."
Resilience has become a team hallmark, whether it's bouncing back from a blowout loss or clawing back from an early deficit.
"The boys have been fighting hard all year long," Mauer said. "We've been able to have short memories after tough losses and come back the next day."
The Twins' longest losing streak all year has been four games.
"I think it's character," Mauer said. "The character of the veterans they brought in. You talk about Matty Belisle and even Craig Breslow early on and mix them with Ervin (Santana) and other guys who have been here. It's been huge. Chris Gimenez has been huge."
With the exception of Santana, those three veterans in particular were brought in last offseason on low-cost, one-year contracts.
"It's a good vibe in the clubhouse, and it's been like that all year long," Mauer said. "It's fun to finally give ourselves a chance. This is a goal of ours to make the postseason, and we checked that first one off the list."
As Twins general manager Thad Levine pointed out, only a select number of players in Wednesday's celebration had ever experienced anything like that at the big-league level. Besides Mauer and the aforementioned Belisle, Santana and Gimenez, there was Glen Perkins, Jason Castro, Dillon Gee, Ehire Adrianza and, of course, 44-year-old Bartolo Colon, whose teams have reached the postseason three years running and 14 times in his 20 seasons.
What has it been like watching so many young Twins players blossom at the same time?
"It's been a lot of fun," Mauer said. "A lot of guys made some huge strides. Not just this year but this is the culmination of a couple years. To see them playing at the level they are is pretty special. There are guys in this clubhouse that are having great years."
Mauer, hitting .308 and vying to become the first former catcher to win a Rawlings Gold Glove at another position, is certainly among them.
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