MINNEAPOLIS -- As Joe Mauer drove to the ballpark for a doubleheader to begin the last series of the season for the Minnesota Twins, the finality of the weekend dawned on him a little more deeply than usual.
These games against the Chicago White Sox aren't necessarily going to be the last of Mauer's 15-year career, but there's no guarantee they won't be, either. Mauer will wait until the offseason, in consultation with his family, to decide whether to retire at age 35. The three-time American League batting champion and six-time All-Star will be a free agent, his eight-year, $184 million contract set to expire, but he has no interest in playing outside of his home state.
"The end of the season sneaks up on you. Here we are, the last weekend," Mauer said before the Twins beat the White Sox 2-1 in the first game Friday afternoon. "Just trying to enjoy it."
By going 2-for-4 in each of the two games, Mauer stretched his on-base streak to 14 straight starts. He's batting .362 (21-for-58) during that stretch. After a single in the sixth inning of the second game -- which the Twins won 12-4 -- Mauer was pulled for a pinch runner and received a standing ovation as he waved and tipped his helmet to the crowd.
Mauer's 35-year-old production is modest at best, compared to his pre-2013-concussion numbers as a catcher, let alone his 2009 American League MVP season. He has only six home runs and 33 extra-base hits.
Still, he's batting .280, which is 32 points above the major league average, and he is in the top 25 in the AL in on-base percentage. With runners in scoring position, he's hitting an MLB-best .410 in 78 at-bats. Earlier this week, he became the Twins' leader in times on base, passing Hall of Fame member Harmon Killebrew.
"The professionalism, the performance, the things he's done here in his hometown community for a number of years. It's just been the full package," said manager Paul Molitor, who's doing some savoring of his own this weekend in the event Mauer doesn't return.
The Twins (76-84), who made the AL wild-card game at 85-77 in 2017, will wrap up a sixth losing record in the past eight seasons Sunday afternoon.
"It's going to be fun to watch him play," Molitor said. "I'm hoping there's a little sense of acknowledgement each and every time he steps on that field."
Mauer's laid-back nature has never naturally lent itself to clubhouse leadership, but in the past few seasons he has come into his own as the most experienced player on the roster ought to. He initiated a postgame contest after victories, when a game ball is awarded to a player whose performance made the most impact.
"I just wanted to show them the importance of the little things that contribute to a win," Mauer said. "It might not be getting four hits that day. It might be going first to third with less than two outs and you end up scoring that run."
Though teammates Brian Dozier and Eduardo Escobar chipped in with occasional choices at Mauer's request before they were traded to other teams this summer, the game-ball committee has largely been a one-man production. Perhaps that's fitting, given how deep his contributions to the franchise have run since the first overall pick in the 2001 draft made his debut in 2004.
"Some guys if they don't get mentioned might take exception to that, and the next day they might try to really do something to get mentioned," Mauer said. "But it's a fun thing that we've been doing, and it seems like the boys have a good time doing it too."