Once again, Mauer quietly at the top of his game
Already part of exclusive club, understated catcher off to another torrid start
MINNEAPOLIS -- The list of catchers with at least 1,000 hits, 250 doubles and 500 walks before their 30th birthday is a short one.
There's Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Gary Carter and Mickey Cochrane, along with eight-time All-Star Ted Simmons. Then there's Joe Mauer.
Mauer, who turns 30 on Friday, has already established himself as one of the best hitting catchers in baseball history, as evidenced by his three batting titles, five All-Star Game appearances and an American League Most Valuable Player Award in 2009.
And while he dealt with injuries in a forgettable 2011 season, Mauer has not showed any signs of slowing down, as he hit .319 last season while posting a Major League-best .416 on-base percentage in a career-high 147 games.
Mauer is at it again so far this season, as he's currently riding a nine-game hitting streak and logged back-to-back four-hit games against the Angels on Monday and Tuesday.
But it doesn't surprise Twins skipper Ron Gardenhire, who has managed Mauer since he broke into the big leagues in 2004 as a 20-year-old.
"I've seen him hit his whole career, so we've seen him do this," Gardenhire said. "We keep saying it's incredible to do this at this level, and it is. He can just rack up those hits, and it's incredible, and that'll never change. He's just an incredible hitter."
A big part of Mauer's game is his pitch recognition and ability to hit with two strikes, and it's showing yet again this season. Mauer leads the Majors with 16 two-strike hits, as he's hitting .410 (16-for-39) in those situations this season, which is impressive considering the league average with two strikes this season is a mere .176.
"I'm just trying to have a plan," Mauer said. "You go up there and you try to execute it. A pitch might look good on TV, but it's not really something I want to offer at. Getting a couple strikes on you, to be able to come through with a hit is huge."
Gardenhire explained it a different way, as he said that Mauer, who is hitting .386 this season, simply has no fear hitting when he's behind in the count.
"It takes courage," Gardenhire said. "In the first place, not many guys want to get to two strikes and fight balls off. But it's not like he fights balls off. He puts as good a swing on with two strikes as he does any other time in the count."
Mauer has been on a tear recently, hitting .462 (18-for-39) with two homers and four doubles during his nine-game hitting streak. He's also been adjusting to his new role as the club's No. 2 hitter after serving as the No. 3 hitter throughout most of his career. Second baseman Brian Dozier, who took over as leadoff hitter on Tuesday, said his job is made easier by having Mauer hit behind him.
"Especially right now, when he gets hot, nobody can really stop him," Dozier said. "He's obviously a joy to hit in front of or behind, whatever it is. But he does some pretty neat things with the bat."
Mauer is also getting high praise for his defense, and he has caught 10 of the club's first 13 games so far. That's a much higher percentage of games caught compared to last season, when he only started 72 of his 147 games behind the plate.
Mauer has made it a point to catch more this season, and right-hander Mike Pelfrey, who is in his first year with the club, likes the way Mauer calls games and frames pitches.
"There's a reason he's making what he's making," Pelfrey said with a smile. "I don't think I've even seen a better catcher. He's the complete package."
Mauer, who is signed through 2018 as part of an eight-year, $184 million deal signed before the '11 season, is also impressing those in the other dugout with his play, especially after tallying eight hits in 10 at-bats in two wins over the Angels.
"His physical ability obviously warranted being the top pick in the country when he was drafted and being one of the best players in the game," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who was an accomplished catcher himself with the Dodgers. "Although he's been banged up a little bit the last couple years, he's one of the best, not only offensive catchers, but behind the plate -- the way he can control a game, the way he throws, the way he receives, does everything."
Despite his accolades, Mauer remains humble and soft-spoken, preferring to keep it simple, just like his approach at the plate.
"I'm just trying to take good at-bats and find good pitches to hit," Mauer said. "Hopefully I can keep it going."