TWINS: Mauer, looking forward to 2012, says critics of his toughness 'unfair'
MINNEAPOLIS The familiar scent of Bengay was strong as Joe Mauer allowed that, perhaps, he should be more forthcoming about his injuries. He called recent criticism of his willingness to play through injuries "unfair" and acknowledged that everyt...
The familiar scent of Bengay was strong as Joe Mauer allowed that, perhaps, he should be more forthcoming about his injuries.
He called recent criticism of his willingness to play through injuries "unfair" and acknowledged that everything related to a long, disappointing season for the Twins' highest-paid player can be tied directly to the state of his health, which isn't good.
"I've just never been one of those guys who talks about any of that," Mauer said before Saturday's game against the Detroit Tigers. "I've always said, 'If I'm in the lineup, I'm in the lineup.'
"Obviously I think everybody can see that I'm not 100 percent, or healthy, but I'm going out there for the team and trying to be a good teammate."
In a season that includes 24 trips to the disabled list, injuries have been a major issue for the Twins, who staggered into the weekend 21 games under .500 and 17 games out in the American League Central. Only two regulars - Michael Cuddyer and Danny Valencia - have avoided the DL, and Cuddyer has missed 11 games since Aug. 12 because of neck and wrist injuries.
Of all the team's myriad injuries, those drawing the most attention have involved Mauer, playing in the first season of an eight-year extension paying him $23 million annually. He has missed 62 games, the past three because of a neck injury and 58 during a two-month DL stint from April 12-Aug. 2.
Nearly everything about Mauer's absence seemed odd, from the official description of "bilateral leg weakness" to the fact he played only nine games before essentially starting over at the team's spring training facility in Fort Myers, Fla. Was he ever really ready? Was surgery he underwent in December to repair his left knee done too late?
It was understood that his right shoulder, an issue at the tail end of 2010, was still an issue, but everything remained as vague as the official diagnosis.
"Maybe that's something I need to be more upfront with, and it's one of the things I've learned," Mauer said. "But things happen, and you learn from it."
'I understand the head'
Mauer said there are two reasons for his guarded answers regarding injuries: One, he doesn't want to make excuses -- "If I'm in the lineup, I'm in the lineup," he said -- and two, he doesn't want to abet the opposition. He believed the reporting of a shoulder injury early in his career inspired teams to test his arm on the base paths.
"I think that's part of why I've kept a lot of things to myself," he said. "But I (also) understand that's part of the frustration, and I think in the future, I think we all, maybe, need to be a little more honest with what's going on. But when I stub a toe, everybody gives their two cents on it, and a lot of times the truth gets clouded."
"I understand that me being a guy that's been around here for a long time, and one of the leaders, that I'm going to take a lot of heat. But a lot of it has been unfair and things like that, but it is what it is."
Asked if that might also have to do with his contract, Mauer said no.
"I think when I say 'unfair' it's more like, you know, like the other day - questioning toughness," he explained. "Really, I mean, I'm not trying to sound (self-righteous), but how can somebody that's maybe been in the clubhouse once this year question toughness, and an athlete in general?
"And that's what I said, 'Ask anybody in here and they know what I go through.' And being a catcher, too - it's not an easy position. But like I said, I don't make excuses; if I'm in the lineup, I'm in the lineup. And in the past few days I just haven't been physically able to get out there. Nobody wants to get out there more than I do."
That's why he returned to the team before he was completely healthy.
"I was definitely better than I was at the start of the season, but I was trying to get back as soon as I could and healthy enough to catch back-to-back days and get back in the swing of things," he said.
But the swing of things hasn't been the same. Mauer's power is down precipitously - one home run and 13 doubles in 285 plate appearances - and he said he has spent probably more time rehabbing than playing. The lack of power, he said, can be traced directly to leg weakness, something hitting coach Joe Vavra said he started noticing last season.
"You generate 90 percent of your power from your legs, and it happens to be his back leg, which is the one you rotate on," Vavra said. "So, yeah, there's no doubt. Anything you do in sports, you've got to have your legs underneath you, and you need two healthy legs for most things you do."
'I've learned a lot'
Most catchers, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire points out, don't play more than 130 or 140 games, and because Mauer has been an all-star, batting champion and AL most valuable player, that is often lost on fans.
But there's no doubt that injuries have been a constant for Mauer.
He lost a month of the 2009 season because of inflammation in his pelvis and much of his rookie season in 2004 to surgery to repair the meniscus in his left knee. He also has been periodically sidelined by shoulder, leg and foot injuries.
But this is not uncommon for a catcher, and Mauer (769) has passed Butch Wynegar (759) to move into second on the Twins career list for games caught and is all but certain to pass Earl Battey (831) and become the team's leader next season.
But first he needs to mend fully. Mauer said he anticipates being structurally sound, and that he will start a new offseason regimen this winter.
"I've learned a lot over the past couple years," he said, "and I think heading into this offseason I'll be, I hope, in better shape physically than I was going into last offseason."
Gardenhire said it's already been discussed.
"He realizes you can't sit around and do nothing as you get older. He's going to stay after it. We've talked about it," the manager said. "He's going to do some different things this winter, and prepare a little bit more and a little bit longer and come into spring training ready to go. That's the plan he has, and it's a good plan."
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