Joe Mauer isn’t afraid.
The three-time batting champion is on another blazing streak, lining any and every pitch into left field or up the middle. He had four hits Monday, and four more in Tuesday’s 8-6 victory over the Angels — and the fuel that drives it, his manager says, is his lack of fear.
Most hitters hate to hit with two strikes. Mauer, Ron Gardenhire says, barely notices.
“It takes courage,” Gardenhire said after Mauer singled four times, drove in three runs, and raised his batting average to .386. “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 swings on with two strikes as he does any other time in the count.”
Certainly seems like it lately. On Tuesday, facing Angels lefthander Jason Vargas, Mauer got down in the count 0-and-2 in each of his first two at-bats — and promptly lashed singles the opposite way each time, the second one driving in two runs. In his third at-bat, Mauer didn’t wait; he swung at a 1-1 fastball and drove it up the middle for another hit, raising his batting average to .382. And in the seventh inning, facing reliever Jerome Williams, Mauer took two called strikes, worked the count to 3-2 — then dropped a 90-miles-per-hour cutter in front of Mike Trout to drive in another run.
“We keep saying it’s incredible, and it is at this level, to swing and get those hits like he does,” Gardenhire said after Mauer put together back-to-back four-hit games for the first time since 2006. Counting his ninth-inning double Saturday, the Twins catcher has nine hits in his last 11 at-bats — seven of them on two-strike counts. “You just have to have a lot of confidence, and knowing the strike zone, trusting your hands, and he does. He can flat-out hit, let’s just put it that way.”
Too bad he can’t pitch, too. Mike Pelfrey started for the Twins and, after two perfect innings, had to grind his way through three more. He threw 96 pitches, gave up four runs, yet still earned his second victory of the season. “That’s not good enough,” Pelfrey said. “I’ll do better.”
If he can do as well as Anthony Swarzak, that might be enough. The righthanded reliever retired 10 of the first 11 hitters he faced, and if not for a ninth-inning error by Trevor Plouffe, Gardenhire said, Swarzak might have finished the game. “He’s been throwing really well all spring. He’s on a mission right now,” Gardenhire said. “He was just pounding the strike zone.”
But after the error and a single, Glen Perkins was summoned, and the game got tense. Mike Trout doubled home two runs, bringing Albert Pujols to the plate as the tying run.
Pujols hit a screamer, and it bounced off Plouffe about 10 feet into the air. Pedro Florimon plucked the ball out of the air and rocketed it to first, a step ahead of the slow slugger. “The old combo play,” Gardenhire joked.
Whatever the play, it worked, especially behind an offense that racked up a season-high 15 hits and matched its season high with nine runs. “We’re really hitting the ball right now,” Pelfrey said. “The bullpen and the offense picked me up tonight.”