Mauer playing through all kinds of pain

Joe Mauer(notes) is hurt. He smiles through the pain because the unwritten part of a $184 million contract calls for grinning and bearing. He refuses to talk about his injuries because to do so would be to admit they exist, and to do that would seem like an excuse, and if there is anything Joe Mauer hates, it’s excuses. So he plays.

A banged-up Mauer is still hitting .308 with a .374 on-base percentage and .462 slugging percentage.
(Jim Mone/AP)

“I’m in the lineup,” he said.

In the annals of votes of self-confidence, it’s in the same ZIP code as “Well, at least my leg’s not falling off.” By nature Mauer isn’t the most effusive sort. Still, when his rote answer to any physical ailments is simply to point out his presence in the Minnesota Twins’ starting nine, that doesn’t exactly inspire visions of physical fitness.

Though still baseball’s best catcher, the reigning American League MVP looks little like his 2009 self, even after gorging the last two days on Kansas City pitching. His power output is unplugged, with only six home runs after mashing 28 last season. His on-base percentage is the lowest since his rookie season. He’s catching a quarter of opposing basestealers, far below his career average. And at 27, Mauer is feeling the sort of wear that builds in men who spent half their professional lives squatting in cumbersome gear and taking ball after inadvertent ball off all 206 of their bones.

Mauer’s left heel nags him. His right shoulder aches. Two other injuries – his back and his hip, for which the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported he receives treatment – are something neither he nor the organization will address publicly. Because while the heel and shoulder are more pesky, anything having to do with a back or hip, let alone both, inspires a great deal of fear.

Remember, the eight-year deal worth all that cheese doesn’t start until next season. And even a team like Minnesota – with the increased revenues Target Field provides, the zenith of player-development systems and a Latin-American program rivaling any in the game – can’t swallow the prospect of its franchise player hobbling along so early into such a monumental contract.

Mauer embodies the Twins in the same fashion Albert Pujols(notes) does the Cardinals, and Pujols has played with a torn ligament in his throwing elbow for seven years now. Part of the superstar ethos is commitment beyond reason. For Pujols, that means girding his elbow in ice and never drawing attention to it, even in the midst of a slump. And for Mauer, it necessitates his presence in the No. 3 hole for a Twins team lost without him.

“He knows he needs to be out there,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.

Such an attitude is frightening, given the length of Minnesota’s commitment to Mauer. As important as it is for the Twins to use their superior talent and overtake Chicago for the AL Central lead, doing so with Mauer’s long-term health in the balance is a 12-gauge shell to the foot. Certainly the Twins wouldn’t put Mauer in a harmful position willfully, and yet short-sightedness can wreak havoc on best-laid plans.

“We’re a better team when I’m behind the plate,” Mauer said. “That’s the goal: to be back there as much as I can. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”

In the first half, Mauer received four off-days and missed a week with the heel injury. At one point, he played 41 consecutive games. Mauer has caught in nearly 90 percent of his games this season, more than last season when he served as DH once every five games or so. Gardenhire already has given Mauer two days off since the All-Star break.

“He won’t ever let you know just how hurt he is,” Twins DH Jim Thome(notes) said. “That’s the great thing about him. He doesn’t complain. At this time of year, everyone has little aches and pains. His are greater than that, no question.”

A banged-up Mauer is still hitting .308 with a .374 on-base percentage and .462 slugging percentage, numbers buoyed the last two nights in which he went seven for nine with three doubles and a home run. The Twins would more than welcome his power stroke back. Anything to keep him from bunting late in a tie game with runners on first and second, which, to the confused gasps of Twins fans, he did against Cleveland a week ago.

“I’m not too concerned about home run numbers,” he said. “I’m more worried about wins and losses. I’m sure you and everyone else can come up with your own theories.”

Last season, Mauer’s home run spray chart looked like a line of machine-gun fire. His opposite-field power was particularly prodigious, with 13 balls going over the left or left-center field fence, though he was an equal-opportunity thumper, with plenty more to center and right fields. Even with his line-drive rate steady – an indicator Mauer is squaring the ball up like usual – his home run rate on fly balls has dropped from 20 percent to around 6 percent. None have gone to left field.

Part of the issue, the Twins believe, is Target Field, which in its first year has been a home run mortuary. Mauer remains homerless in the park he helped get publicly financed. More likely is the compounding effect of Mauer’s bumps and bruises sapping the power from his swing. For all the time he spends in the training room, with whirlpools and tubs and massages, nothing is drawing out the Mauer from 2009.

He hears that a lot. Last season this, last season that. It gets annoying. Mauer fields similar questions all the time about Francisco Liriano(notes), too. He’s the Twins’ ace, whose renaissance is reminiscent of the 2006 season in which he dominated before Tommy John surgery sidetracked him. Liriano is finally back, and the comparisons to ’06 are there. Mauer prefers to look at careers in a vacuum, each season unique, each person different.

“To have someone duplicate what he did when he’s so above and beyond … ” Mauer said, his voice trailing off. It was as though he was talking about someone else, someone he knows all too well. And it hurt.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Jul 28, 2010