MINNEAPOLIS — In a one-run game — especially one that lasts 13 innings — every play can make a difference.
When Twins catcher Joe Mauer threw out Houston’s Brandon Barnes at second base in the top of the seventh inning Friday night, it may not have seemed like a game-changing play at the time. Minnesota trailed 2-0 at that point and still had plenty of work to do to get back into the game.
As it turned out, though, the Twins sent the game to extras before winning in the 13th inning. Had Barnes instead been on second base with nobody out, there’s no telling what that run might have meant for the Astros.
“That might be the one run that wins us the game,” said Terry Steinbach, the Twins’ bench coach and former catcher. “If we can throw a guy out in the second inning and all of a sudden it’s the ninth inning and we win by one, maybe it was that runner that we threw out that saved that game.”
Last season, Mauer threw out just 14 percent of potential base stealers, easily the lowest rate of his career. Not all of it had to do with Mauer, however. While a strong and accurate throw to the base is important, the timing of the pitcher on the mound and his ability to get the ball to home plate quickly may be equally as essential.
That was often a problem for Twins pitchers last year, who took far too long to deliver the ball to the plate. That left Mauer with little chance at gunning down runners, even with a strong and precise throw.
“Our staff talked about it and has been doing a great job this year paying attention to those guys,” Mauer said. “I think the attempts are probably way down, which is an indicator of that. I think it all starts with the pitcher, and we’ve got to do our job behind the plate and the middle infielders have to do their job, too.”
Throwing out runners is really a three-man job, and the middle infielders often go overlooked in this play. But the middle infield duo of shortstop Pedro Florimon and second baseman Brian Dozier have done their part this year in reacting to the play and being in prime position to receive the throw from Mauer.
Now that the Twins have emphasized the importance of the pitchers firing to home quicker when there’s a runner on base, Mauer’s numbers have improved. Entering Saturday’s game, he has thrown out 16 potential base stealers out of 33 attempts. That rate of 48 percent of runners thrown out is tops among all qualified American League catchers. It also is the second-highest percentage of Mauer’s career; he nabbed 53 percent of base runners (24 of 45) back in 2006.
“I think Joe feels a lot better this year. He’s stronger under his legs,” Steinbach said. “I think throwing guys out, specifically from the catcher’s standpoint, starts with the legs. You want to have quick feet. He’s always had a good arm and a pretty quick release. I think last year with the ailments that he had, he wasn’t able to utilize that. This year he’s back healthy. You can see the quick feet. You see him being quick to second.”
Steinbach, in his first year on manager Ron Gardenhire’s staff, has worked with Mauer and the other catchers throughout the season on the mechanics of throwing to second base. But Steinbach has also helped the catchers communicate with the pitchers on making sure they keep base runners in check.
Part of that may be the pitcher mixing up his timing on the mound. On one pitch, the pitcher may hold the ball longer than usual; the next pitch, he may snap a throw over to first base as soon as he comes set on the mound. During games, Steinbach is relaying these signs to Mauer, but he’s also seen the catchers and pitchers start to do these things on their own.
“It’s been really nice to have Terry here every day,” Mauer said. “We did a lot of work down in spring training with him in past years, but to have him here every day (keeps) everybody accountable, which is good. Just top to bottom, we’ve all done a better job of that.”
Mauer, a three-time batting champion and six-time All-Star, is often lauded for his offense. But he takes just as much pride in the defensive part of the game — blocking balls in the dirt, calling pitches, and, of course, throwing out base runners.
After a down year in 2012, Mauer is once again showing he has one of baseball’s best arms behind the plate.
“There’s some pretty good arms in the league,” Gardenhire said. “Guys can throw a little bit, and Joe’s one of them. If they give him a chance he’ll throw them out.”