How many M's do you count in Twins? Sometimes none, sometimes one, rarely two. Such is the baseball existence of stars Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer.
There is only one American League team that has two former Most Valuable Players on its roster. It's the Twins, with catcher Joe Mauer and first baseman Justin Morneau.
They are the team's No. 3 and No. 4 hitters and one of the most devastating one-two punches in baseball --when they are on the field together.
And the uncertainty of how often the two will be in the lineup in the second half is one of the biggest questions facing the Twins as they try to overcome a 6 1/2-game deficit in the AL Central.
"Those two are a dynamic duo when they are back-to-back," Detroit Tigers righthander Justin Verlander said. "It is never going to be easy to get through those two guys, especially when there are men on base."
The former MVPs are the foundation of the franchise, with Mauer earning $23 million a year through 2018 and Morneau earning $14 million a year through 2013.
But they have had to watch their teammates make do without them for lengthy stretches in recent seasons because of injuries such as fractured vertebrae, inflamed sacroiliac joints, concussions and knee ailments. Since the beginning of the 2005 season, they have failed to start together 371 times.
Since the beginning of 2009, the M&M boys have been on the field together just 46 percent of the time (190 of 414 games).
"We're here to win," said Morneau, who is recovering from surgery to remove a herniated disk fragment in his neck that alleviated discomfort in his left shoulder, arm and hand. "We know our chances of winning are better with us in the lineup."
The Twins have won the past two AL Central titles despite their frequent absences, and they are trying to contend this year despite Mauer missing 58 games because of bilateral leg weakness and Morneau now being out until August.
"Mauer, he's had some injuries lately, but as far as putting the bat on the ball, there's not many better than him," Phillies lefthander Cliff Lee said. "Morneau is right there with him. Having to face those guys back to back usually is not that much fun."
Then Lee paused.
"Wait," he said. "Aren't they both healthy now?"
They are not.
• • •
Mauer and Morneau have been called the M&M boys in part because it's catchy. The original M&M boys -- Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris -- played together from 1960 to 1966 with the Yankees. They combined to win three MVP awards during that time. Mantle hit 174 home runs from 1960-64 and put together an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) of 1.049. But Mantle's production dropped off after 1964 when he turned 32 and suffered from knee injuries -- although he maintained an on-base percentage of over .380.
Maris hit 182 homers from 1960-64, including 61 in his magical 1961 season. He was 29 in 1964, but his production dropped off after that year and he was traded to St. Louis.
Perhaps one of the best 1-2 punches ever was Houston's Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. They were teammates from 1991 to 2004. Bagwell was the NL MVP in 1994, and they were named to a combined 11 All-Star Games and led the league in various offensive categories throughout their time together. Bagwell hit 27 homers at age 36. Biggio played until he was 41.
Based on the Twins' investments in Mauer and Morneau, it looks as if the club was hoping for its version of the Killer B's -- but hasn't gotten it yet.
"When [Mauer] extended his deal, I was excited just knowing I was going to hit behind him," Morneau said, "and that we got someone in the lineup we know is going to be on base all the time."
It shows how health and a little luck are involved when it comes to longevity. Morneau was batting .345 with 18 homers through 81 games last season when he suffered a concussion while executing a take-out slide. He spent the offseason recovering, but neck and shoulder problems plagued him during the first half of this season.
"I'm supposed to be in my prime right now," Morneau said. "These are supposed to be my best years. Not being able to run out there is frustrating. You try to keep a positive outlook and keep believing that, eventually, it is going to turn around."
Mauer missed the first month of the 2008 season because of an inflamed sacroiliac joint but returned and won the AL MVP award. He struggled during preparations for this season following offseason knee surgery.
"I think for both he and I, the thing is that you want to be on the field to help your team win," Mauer said. "When you are not able to do that, it's really frustrating. I think this year especially because we've had a lot of injuries across the board to key players.
"Justin has had a rough go of it, and it's not from a lack of trying. Things happen."
• • •
Twins fans have moaned in recent years that their team can't beat the Yankees in the postseason. Morneau pointed out that he hasn't been in a playoff series since 2006 because of his injuries. He's missed the past two Division Series against New York.
"It's really nice to have those two in the lineup at the same time, especially when you get into the playoffs, when you have your third and fourth hitters in there together," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "That bodes well for a better chance.
"Even though other people have picked up [the slack], a Morneau in the lineup for the playoffs makes a big difference, along with Mauer."
Mauer and Morneau could go 100 games without being in the lineup together this year.
Mauer has needed time to get his swing back after returning to the lineup June 17, but he is batting .308 over his past 15 games -- although his slugging percentage is just .365 over that time.
By September, the Twins hope they are in a pennant race, and their M&M boys are locked in. If the Twins reach the playoffs -- and the M&M boys are healthy -- maybe things will turn out differently.
Playoffs or no playoffs, they will cross their fingers that they are distancing themselves from an injury-plagued portion of their careers.
"If we're healthy," Mauer said, "there's no reason for us not do what we've done before."
|NY Mets - LP: J. Hefner||2||FINAL|
|Chicago Cubs - WP: S. Feldman||8|
|Seattle - LP: O. Perez||4||FINAL|
|Cleveland - WP: C. Perez||5|
|Toronto - LP: B. Morrow||2||FINAL|
|NY Yankees - WP: D. Phelps||7|
|Cincinnati||3||Bottom 3rd Inning|
|Chicago WSox||0||Bottom 3rd Inning|
|Tampa Bay||3||Bottom 3rd Inning|
|Houston - E. Bedard||6:05 PM|
|Pittsburgh - A. Burnett|
|Los Angeles - C. Capuano||6:10 PM|
|Atlanta - K. Medlen|
|Boston - R. Dempster||6:10 PM|
|Minnesota - S. Diamond|
|Arizona - B. McCarthy||6:10 PM|
|Miami - T. Koehler|
|Milwaukee - M. Estrada||6:15 PM|
|St. Louis - L. Lynn|
|Detroit - A. Sanchez||7:05 PM|
|Texas - J. Grimm|
|San Francisco - T. Lincecum||7:10 PM|
|Colorado - T. Chatwood|
|Washington - J. Zimmermann||7:40 PM|
|San Diego - E. Stults|
|Kansas City - E. Santana||8:05 PM|
|Oakland - T. Milone|
|New York||7:00 PM|
|Los Angeles||8:00 PM|
|New England||7:30 PM|
|FC Dallas||9:30 PM|