Joe Mauer's charmed life

HOUSTON – To revisit the age-old question of whether it's better to be lucky than good, we present Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer.

For some context, the tale of the tape.

On the side of luck is a lady, in fact. Even the most princely of gentlemen will admit that it takes a heap of good fortune to be dating Miss USA, and Mauer, the sly fox, is seeing the contest's 2005 winner, Chelsea Cooley, on a fairly regular basis.

"I'm just having fun right now," he said.

On the good side is a number, .368, Mauer's batting average that ranks as the best in baseball. Mauer, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 draft, has grown into among the game's most polished hitters in his third season with the Twins. And at 23 years old, the left-handed Mauer sprays the ball to all fields like a hitter with 10 years more experience.

"I'm just having good at-bats right now," he said.

Fun vs. good at-bats.

Millions of envious men against 87 qualified American League hitters chasing him for a batting title.

Luck seems to have won this particular battle.

Though being good might give Mauer the utmost pleasure. Because it proves, once and for all, that the Twins weren't erring solely on the side of spendthrifts when they chose Mauer with the first pick ahead of Mark Prior, and that Mauer wasn't crazy for leaving behind a scholarship to play quarterback at Florida State to sign with the Twins.

Very quietly, the Twins have crept above .500, and were they not in the meatgrinder of the AL Central, they would be in playoff contention's ZIP code. Much of the thanks goes to Mauer, who has helped stabilize a pitching staff that seemed to give up more hits than pitches thrown and a lineup that, though still wobbly, is no longer the anemic outfit that strained in pushing one run across the plate.

Batting third, Mauer has strung together 25 multi-hit games, driven in 31 runs and scored 39 while maintaining an eye that could spot a fleck of dust on a table treated by Pledge.

"He can continue to get better," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "But I don't know how much. I don't know how much you can improve. There's not another league above this one."

If Mauer stays atop the batting average leaderboard, he would set one standard: The first AL catcher to lead the league in batting average. Cincinnati's Bubbles Hargrave led the National League in 1926, though he caught just 93 games, and Ernie Lombardi did it twice, the second season squatting for 85 games.

Switching positions has long been discussed with Mauer. Knee issues dogged him his first two seasons. It took a move to third base for Joe Torre to win the 1971 batting title, and Craig Biggio has played 15 seasons since leaving backstop duties. Mauer does little to dispel the thought: He's hitting .630 (17 for 27) as a designated hitter this season.

"I came into the draft an offensive guy, though," Mauer said, "which is why I'm proud of my defense. I don't want to change positions."

Only one passed ball has slipped by Mauer this season, a feat considering Johan Santana's changeup and Francisco Liriano's slider are dirt darts. He's thrown out 15 of 36 runners, a 41.7 percent clip that is fourth-best among regular catchers.

What satisfies Mauer most is his place in helping stabilize a starting staff that turned over like the "Law & Order" cast. Gone are Kyle Lohse and Scott Baker, replaced by Liriano and Boof Bonser. Carlos Silva is still in, despite a baseball-worst 6.87 earned-run average, and Brad Radke, the 12th-year Twin, continues to work out early-season kinks.

Mauer traces the poise back to his first spring training. He was 18 years old, fresh out of Cretin-Derham Hall High in St. Paul, Minn., a $5.1 million bonus baby, looking like a 6-foot-4 man until he peeled back the catcher's mask to reveal a Noxzema face. Radke was pitching that day, and Mauer approached him before the game.

"I asked what he wanted to do that day," Mauer said. "And he said he'd go with me, that he wasn't going to shake me off. It's whether he executes the pitch. And I thought it was refreshing when your No. 1 starter believes in you unconditionally. That stayed with me."

Starting next year, it could be Mauer's blessing that young players seek. Unless he takes a huge pay cut, Radke will leave via free agency this offseason. The Twins might not be able to afford Torii Hunter's $12-million option. Responsibilities would inevitably cascade toward Mauer.

"He has a pretty good understanding of what he can and can't do," Gardenhire said.

He can hit.

He can field.

He can lead.

And, oh, yeah, he can date among the most beautiful his country has to offer.

Is it better to be lucky than good? Joe Mauer doesn't know. He's just happy to be both.