There were three players in contention for the 2006 American League batting title entering the final day of the regular season on Oct. 1: Joe Mauer with the Twins and Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano with the Yankees.
The Twins were playing the White Sox at the Metrodome and the Yankees were playing Toronto in the Bronx. Mauer was batting .346, Jeter .345 and Cano was at .341, and needed hits and help on that last day to win a batting title in his second season.
Mauer was attempting to become the first catcher in American League history to claim a batting title. A pair of Cincinnati Reds catchers had won batting titles in the National League: Bubbles Hargrave in 1926, and Ernie Lombardi in 1938 and 1942.
The Twins had a more intriguing drama taking place: They had been on a long run to catch Detroit at the top of the AL Central and finally equaled the Tigers’ 95 victories on the Saturday before the season-closer.
The Twins had Carlos Silva facing Chicago's Javier Vazquez, making his 32nd start as part of an outstanding White Sox rotation. The Mighty Whiteys ended up winning 90 games, good for only third place in the always-rugged AL Central.
OK, not always, but in 2006 for sure.
The Tigers were at home with Kansas City, which came to Detroit with 100 losses and had won the first two games of the series. The Twins and the Tigers were both in the playoffs, but the winner would open at home vs. Oakland and the loser would be on the road vs. the Yankees.
Silva allowed a run in the first and Mauer struck out in the bottom of the inning. Mauer’s double to deep left triggered a three-run rally vs. Vazquez in the fourth. Mauer also singled (to left) off Vazquez as the Twins added a run in the fifth.
Silva turned the 4-1 lead over the Twins’ bullpen in the sixth, and quite a bullpen it was with lefty Dennys Reyes, Juan Rincon, Jesse Crain and Joe Nathan nailing down what became a 5-1 victory.
On Monday, there was a formal announcement of Mauer’s retirement held at Target Field, and the historic nature of the batting titles was mentioned to him.
Mauer talked about Joe Vavra, the hitting coach, being in the space in the back of the Twins’ dugout between innings in ’06, monitoring Cano and Jeter, and checking what his man Mauer needed to stay ahead of the Yankees.
Jeter went 1 for 5 and finished at .343. Cano went 2 for 4 and finished at .342. And the American League finally had a catcher win a batting title in its 106th year of existence. It has had two more in the 12 years since, and both came from Mauer – back-to-back in 2008 (.328) and 2009 (.365).
The Tigers wound up losing in 12 innings to K.C. to give the AL Central title to the Twins. Then, the Twins were swept by Oakland and the Tigers upset the Yankees and wound up going to the World Series.
The Twins had a hat trick that season: Justin Morneau, MVP; Johan Santana, Cy Young Award; and Mauer, the first of three batting titles in four seasons.
Tim Laudner, never a threat for a batting title but a World Series champion as a catcher, was among the former Twins attending Mauer’s announcement. Laudner was asked if the wear-and-tear a catcher endures in a season explains the dearth of batting titles.
“I don’t think that’s it,’’ Laudner said. “I think as a season progresses, you have to spend so much time working with pitchers – before the game, this is how we want this pitcher to work to this hitter; during the game, trying to get the right pitch to the right place – that it can overwhelm your own preparation as a hitter.
“You have to be as good a hitter as Joe Mauer to overcome that, and if you’re as good a hitter as Joe was coming into the game, there’s a strong possibility that they are going move you to another position.
“Justin Morneau was a catcher and they moved him early in his career. Good decision.
“The guy Joe mentioned today – Cano. Look it up. He was playing 158 games a year as a second baseman. With a catcher, he’s behind the plate 110, and maybe 15 more as a DH. Would you rather have a great hitter in the lineup 150-plus games or 125?’’
Laudner took a ride with General Manager Terry Ryan for a Twins’ event in Mason City, Iowa in the winter before the Twins would make Mauer the No. 1 overall draft choice in June 2001.
“I told Terry, ‘I don’t think he’s going to catch’ – meaning, he was too good a hitter,’’ Laudner said. “And Terry said, ‘He has the skills to do both, to catch and still hit.'
The Twins didn’t see catching as a burden for Mauer. They saw it as an enhancement to his greatness as a hitter. And it was that, for seven-plus seasons, and the first major league batting titles for a catcher since 1942.
Ryan has been gone from the Twins for two years, but he was among those in attendance at Mauer’s walkoff from 15 years with his home-state organization. Ryan was asked if baseball will ever see another catcher win a batting title, in his opinion?
“History tells us no,’’ Ryan said. “But I wouldn’t say that for sure. There’s a kid out there now …’’
Someone else in the group said: “Yeah, the catcher at Oregon State. We better watch him for a few more years before we say never.’’
Adley Rutchsman is a 6-foot-2, 215-pound switch hitter entering his junior season at Oregon State. He had 17 hits in the College World Series as the Beavers came out of the losers bracket to win it last season. He batted .408 for the season, with nine home runs and 83 RBI in 68 games.
“He can’t run like this guy could,’’ said Ryan, nodding across the room to Mauer, “so he’s going to keep catching. And he can hit.’’