CHICAGO - Wednesday afternoon, in a well-traveled corridor at U.S. Cellular Field, stadium workers drove golf carts and hustled to their stations. As they prepared for the game, they passed a young guy in shorts and a T-shirt who looked, at first glance, as if he wanted to learn a bizarre form of the waltz.
While a food worker walked by, the guy shuffled sideways, an elastic band circling his ankles. As a security guard glanced at him, the guy lifted one leg, stretching the band to its limit, as if stepping over a puddle.
Despite the strange dance steps, nobody paid him much attention. Not until the fifth inning. That's when Joe Mauer, the man with the painstaking pregame ritual, hit the biggest home run of the season for the Twins, the home run that ended any doubt over who will win the AL Central this year.
"I was pretty pumped up," Mauer said. "I know you can tell from the way I'm speaking right now."
He was speaking in his usual aw-shucks monotone in the clubhouse late Wednesday night, after the Twins whipped the Sox again, this time 9-3, to take an eight-game lead in the division.
Tuesday night, Mauer went 3-for-5, bypassing 1,000 career hits. Wednesday, he broke out of his routine of spraying singles and doubles around American League ballparks, and paid homage to his MVP season of 2009, when he added power to his other estimable skills.
Mauer's three-run home run to right-center with two out in the top of the fifth gave the Twins a 3-0 lead. He finished the night 3-for-4 with an intentional walk and a strikeout, two runs scored, and a batting average of .330.
In the biggest series of the year, he is 6-for-9, and pitcher Brian Duensing sensed how important that home run was to the team and its best player.
"He was fired up when he came back in the dugout after hitting the homer," Duensing said. "He was saying, 'Let's go,' and giving Cuddyer-like high-fives. He was into it."
First baseman Michael Cuddyer is known for his palm-bruising celebrations. Mauer is known for his methodical preparation, as well as his methodical approach at the plate.
For a 7 p.m. game, he'll usually arrive at "1:30 or 2," he said, to exercise, study opposing pitchers, confer with that night's starter and stretch.
Considering he often sleeps until noon, he doesn't have much of a social life during the season. "I don't like to be rushed," he said. "I've been doing a lot of sleeping lately, that's for sure."
Mauer had gone 99 plate appearances without a homer. Even after the homer, his power numbers -- nine homers and 74 RBI -- were not imposing. He will not contend for another MVP award this season, even as he reaffirms his status as the best player on a playoff team.
He's had a strange year. He remains the best catcher in baseball and the Twins' most valuable player. He made another All-Star team. He reached 1,000 hits in fewer games (827) than any Twin other than Kirby Puckett, who did it in 750.
Despite his excellence, the combination of Target Field's power suppression, the weight of his enormous contract and the difficulty of repeating a career year have made this seem like a disappointing season at times for the quiet kid from St. Paul.
Last year, Mauer was a dominant player for the entire season. This year, he has joined the Twins' stealth movement, muddling about for three months before breaking into a sprint.
Before the All-Star break, Mauer hit .293 with four homers and 35 RBI in 290 at-bats. Since the break, he's hitting .384 with five homers and 39 RBI in 198 at-bats.
Despite his pedestrian power numbers, he has been the best player on what has shockingly been the best team in baseball (with a 41-16 record) since the All-Star break despite the loss of Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan.
Mauer is 15-for-27 at The Cell, and seems to have adapted to the dimensions and wind currents of Target Field -- where he hit so many warning-track outs early in the season -- by reverting to his early-career form and spraying singles, as well as a career-high 41 doubles.
"I think he kind of learned how he was getting pitched a lot," Duensing said. "I think he understands how pitchers are going to go at him. He didn't really change his swing, but he kind of changed his approach a little bit, and I think that kind of opened everything up for him and allowed him to do what he wants with the ball.
"And if you watch him hit, he does whatever he wants to do.''
Mauer won't win another MVP or batting title this year, but baseball is more than an accumulation of statistics and awards. Baseball is also about moments.
Wednesday night, long after his hours of preparation, Mauer gave us a moment to remember, a moment to remind us just who he is.
"It felt good," Mauer said, in what for him is a soliloquy. "It definitely felt good."
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon, and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org