By Joe Lemire
May 18, 2009

In hastily returning to the Twins after enduring offseason back and kidney problems, Joe Mauer only participated in an abbreviated spring training, played only five rehab games in the rookie Gulf Coast League and didn't see any major-league pitching -- until he homered on his first swing of the regular season on May 1.

The All-Star catcher has barely slowed since, batting .429 with six homers and 16 RBIs in his first 56 at-bats, a start to the season that his manager calls "uncanny," considering the lack of prep time. The player himself shrugs off a question about whether he thought such a fast start was possible.

"Well, I was kind of hoping," Mauer says in his earnest Minnesotan accent.

(For a further example of his earnest, aw-shucks Midwestern-ness, check out Mauer's sparsely updated but heavily exclamated Twitter feed.)

He's not just back, he's better. Mauer seems to have returned stronger than before, even though his health problems of the winter limited his preseason conditioning and strength training. With six home runs in 15 games, he's on pace to shatter his career best of 13. And his return to the Twins' lineup has improved the offense as a whole. To wit: The Twins have scored 6.0 runs per game that Mauer has started and 4.1 runs per game he hasn't. Though this offensive surge hasn't yet translated into more wins. Minnesota is 11-13 in games without Mauer and 7-7 with him. But when you look at the ongoing series against the Yankees -- New York claimed each of the first three games with walkoff victories -- it's obvious that the team's biggest problems are pitching-related. (The chinks in Minnesota's bullpen are evident and the pitching staff's 5.13 ERA ranks 25th in the majors.)

Truth be told, though, Mauer hasn't received the attention he deserves with such a hot start. Nothing new when it comes to this franchise. Twins baseball is akin to Michigan State basketball: well coached, lacking a top-of-the-marquee star and always better than you think. Every spring it seems Minnesota is counted out as a middle-of-the-pack also-ran, but the Twins have won four division titles this decade and haven't finished lower than third since 2000. As one of the ultimate small-market teams -- back in 2001 the Twins, along with the Expos, were candidates for contraction -- their stars, Mauer and first baseman Justin Morneau, remain baseball's most underrated duo. Through the first month-and-a-half of the season, both rank in the top 10 in the majors in OPS+ (on-base plus slugging percentages, measured against the league average and adjusted for ballpark factors) among players with at least 65 plate appearances -- Mauer is first, Morneau ninth.

Mauer and Morneau, the Twins' "M&M Boys," benefit greatly from each other. Most of the attention given to general lineup protection centers on who bats after whom -- such as Morneau, batting cleanup, protecting Mauer, batting third -- but Morneau (.324 batting average, 12 HR, 32 RBIs) points out that the aid goes both ways. As a left-handed batter, he enjoys a larger hole on the right side of the infield when a runner is being held on first. And considering his teammate's patience at the plate, Morneau often gets to see a pitcher throw his entire repertoire. Mauer has seen 4.31 pitches per plate appearance this season and has swung at the first pitch only twice in the 68 times he's dug into the batter's box. That's a taking rate of 97.1 percent, easily the highest among all players with at least 15 plate appearances. Heck, Mauer doesn't swing at the next offering much either, having taken cuts on only 12 of 67 second pitches.

"He affects my at-bats a lot," Morneau says of Mauer. "He's on base at least 40 percent of the time, so it gets that hole open as long as nobody else is on second. He sees a lot pitches in an at-bat, so I can go off what they're trying to do to him, so it helps me a lot. Between how much he walks and that he has great speed for a catcher, he scores from first a lot on balls in the corner or balls in the gap."

So regular is this sequence of "Mauer reaches base, Morneau drives him in" that about 15 percent of Morneau's career RBIs have been knocking home his good friend Mauer. Then, consider that of Morneau's 555 career RBIs, the first baseman himself has scored 26.1 percent of those runs on homers (145). So when you add the runs scored by Mauer, over 40 percent of Morneau's RBIs have been knocking home only two players. This is not a good thing for the Twins, whose lineup is anything but deep. This season, for instance, players batting in the second and sixth spots of the lineup are both hitting below the real Mendoza Line (i.e. Mario Mendoza's career .215 average).

And there's a third J.M. playing a key, but unheralded, role for the Twins. That's Jose Morales, reserve catcher. Last week he was recalled from Triple-A to give Minnesota extra depth, allowing Mauer to DH, thereby saving his back and legs from the wear and tear of catching everyday. Manager Ron Gardenhire is reluctant to use Mauer as the DH with only one other catcher on the roster, in case there's a reprise of what happened on July 6, 2007. That day Mauer was in the lineup as the DH when catcher Mike Redmond was struck in the head by Jim Thome's bat and had to leave the game. Because Mauer entered the game defensively as the catcher, starting pitcher Matt Garza was forced to hit in Redmond's place. Garza was 0-for-2.

Curiously, Mauer's home run off Joba Chamberlain on Saturday was only his second in 58 career games as a DH, compared to homering once every 10.3 games (48 HR in 496 games) when he catches, but that rate ought to improve as he gets more experience with the different flow of the game as the DH. Certainly his teammates place no limitations on his ability.

"It's fun picking Mauer's brain about hitting," says new third baseman Joe Crede. "The guy's an unbelievable hitter, with he amount of balls he squares up. I've never seen one hitter square up so many balls on a consistent basis. It seems like every time he has a great at-bat. He doesn't ever look fooled up there."

Tall for a catcher at 6-foot-5, Mauer nevertheless won his first Gold Glove last year, to go along with his two Silver Sluggers and two batting titles. (Mauer showed off his defensive prowess on Sunday, diving in spectacular fashion to tag out Brett Gardner at home.) That's why Gardenhire dismisses the idea of moving Mauer out from behind the plate.

"He's the best catcher in the game," says Gardenhire. "You weaken your team when you take him out."

Gardenhire was speaking about the daily lineup getting weaker without Mauer at catcher, but it's about time the Twins started making headway toward locking up the hometown kid with a long-term contract. Though Morneau is signed through 2013 on a six-year, $80 million deal, Mauer will be a free agent after 2010, when his four-year, $33 million, arbitration-avoiding pact expires and he becomes an unrestricted free agent.

The need for Mauer in a Twins uniform was reinforced last weekend. Mauer enjoyed great personal success in his first trip to the new Yankee Stadium, going 4-for-12 with two homers. And although Minnesota dropped three straight games in heartbreaking fashion, Twins players gave the new park rave reviews. The visiting team's clubhouse is as big as some parks' home clubhouse, and pitcher Scott Baker likened his locker to a studio apartment. Gardenhire said the new park looks like the old stadium from his dugout perch but noted that the Yankees' infield was a bit long for his liking.

"They shortchanged themselves on lawnmowers," the manager says. "Golfers would not like that grass."

But with all the talk about New York's new building, conversations quickly shifted to anticipation of the Twins' new home, Target Field, due to open in 2010. After averaging roughly 28,000 fans each of the last three seasons, Twins attendance has fallen to 24,782 so far in 2009.

Gardenhire had received an e-mail with new photos of the ballpark's construction prior to Friday night's game. In his pregame meeting with reporters, Gardenhire turned laptop around on a desk to show gathered mass. Asked if the Twins' new park would be nicer, he quipped, "Yeah, it's in Minnesota," adding that it would be a lot cheaper, too.

With that money they saved while building the ballpark -- it's unsurprising that anything adorned with the Target brand is quality at a discount -- and the revenue they ought to generate from it, the often miserly Twins ought to be generous in keeping Mauer in Minnesota.

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