Jim Souhan: It's obvious this batting champ is no ordinary Joe

  • Article by: Jim Souhan
  • Star Tribune
  • April 12, 2007 - 7:41 AM

Let it be known that on the night of April 11, 2007, local hero Joe Mauer displayed a fatal flaw. He bunted with a runner in scoring position and nobody out.

The guy's not only still growing -- our latest insider reports have him at 7 feet 3, with sideburns like tenderloins -- he last year became the first American League catcher to win the batting title. He speaks in complete sentences, doesn't cuss in public, provides low-cost housing for all Twins prospects arriving in the cities, and kisses dogs and is kind to babies, or is that vice versa?

When Mighty Young Joe bunted in the bottom of the sixth with a runner on second and nobody out and his team trailing the Yankees 1-0, though, at least one person in the press box screamed, "What is he doing!" questioning whether the famous sideburns had become ingrown and infected his (still growing) brain.

Of course, the guy in the press box was wrong, as everyone in the clubhouse explained to the jerk after the game. Mauer's bunt set up Michael Cuddyer's game-tying RBI, and in the eighth, Mauer drove home the go-ahead run and opened the famed Kyle Farnsworth Floodgates, giving the Twins a face-saving 5-1 victory.

Did Mauer decide to bunt on his own? "Yep," manager Ron Gardenhire said.

You OK with that? "Yes," Gardenhire said. "He wasn't seeing the ball well off the lefty. Now, I had to ask what was going on. I had to ask about that. But there was a good explanation -- that he wasn't seeing the ball well, and he was just playing the game, trying to get the runner to third any way he could, and we always support that around here."

Hitting coach Joe Vavra praised Mauer for having the maturity to help his team instead of trying to break out of what Mauer termed a slump with an overzealous swing.

"In this series, and the Chicago series, we've been struggling to score runs," Vavra said. "I firmly believe that him getting the runner over so Michael could get him in was big for us.

"You're somewhat shocked that the league-leading hitter is going to go up there and try to drop down a bunt, but then again, you try to play by how the team is playing for the moment.

"He got his opportunity late, and it worked out pretty good. Then we got a little frenzy going. When your three-hole hitter comes up big like that, it releases all the pressure for everybody else."

Justin Morneau is Mauer's best friend on the team. Doesn't he want to see Mauer swinging in the sixth?

"No," Morneau said. "What did he have, 10 bunt hits last year?"

Can't you rip Mauer just once? "Nope," he said, laughing. "I can't. As long as he gets on base, I don't care."

Mauer has the skills to someday pull off an unprecedented triple play -- winning a batting title, gold glove and MVP award. And yet he didn't get his first RBI of this season until April 11, creating at least one doubt about the guy. How can such a great hitter so assiduously avoid an RBI?

Mauer is hitting .345 this season, yet says he hasn't felt comfortable at the plate. So after Nick Punto doubled to start the sixth, and he came up against an unfamiliar lefty, Sean Henn, Mauer decided discretion was the greater part of teamwork, and bunted softly toward Alex Rodriguez.

"I'm just not feeling very good at the plate right now," he said. "So I had to get my job done. I got the sign to get him over, and that was the easiest way for me to get him over, was to bunt the ball to A-Rod and give Cuddy and the guys behind me a shot at it.

"If I was feeling better, I probably would have swung away. But given the time and the way Cuddy is swinging the bat, all those things kind of calculated, and that seemed like the best option."

The guy who isn't feeling very good at the plate is hitting .345. "I was getting some hits, but I wasn't feeling good," he said. "I'm not where I want to be right now."

Mauer arrived at the Metrodome at 1:30 and left at about 11:30, after doing a leg workout and icing his body. As a starting catcher, he has to spend time every day honing his swing, studying opposing hitters, talking with his pitchers, working out and icing.

"I want to be out there every day," he said. "Everything I do, I do so I can feel good the next day. Yeah, it's a long day, but I get to play baseball. That's a pretty good gig."

So the still-growing local hero wasn't being silly when he bunted -- he was being humble and shrewd. He can be forgiven for helping his team beat the Bronx Bombers with, of all things, a bunt.

But I'd still rather see him swing the bat.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. •

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