La Velle E. Neal III's Twins Insider: Mauer might stick in No. 2 spot

With Joe Mauer in the No. 2 hole, “that’s what you want,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “You put Mauer there, and it just flows.”

The second spot in a batting order has been looked upon as part table-setter and part facilitator. If that hitter isn’t getting on for the heart of the order, he might move a runner over with a productive out.

Joe Mauer appeared as the No. 2 hitter in the Twins lineup on Monday, the result of manager Ron Gardenhire trying to juice up the offense. Mauer isn’t there to give himself up. He’s going to hack. He’s going to take his .323 career batting average and his .405 on-base percentage and throw it at the opposing pitchers and try to be on board when mashers Josh Willingham and Justin Morneau come to the plate.

Gardenhire knows that the best part of this team is the offense. Mauer and Morneau, his two former Most Valuable Players, feel as good physically as they have in years. Josh Willingham is coming off a 35-homer, 110-RBI season. Ryan Doumit provides some pop. Trevor Plouffe and Chris Parmelee are apprentice mashers.

With Mauer in the No. 2 hole, “that’s what you want,” Gardenhire said. “You put Mauer there, and it just flows.”

Conventional lineup building has dictated putting the best hitter on a team in the No. 3 spot. That holds true in many cases — especially when the No. 2 hitter is capable of handling the bat. This Twins team does not have that kind of hitter. When you look at Opening Day lineups of the past, you can argue that Nick Punto, Alexi Casilla, Tsuyoshi Nishioka and others weren’t equipped for the role, either.

Last season, Twins No. 2 hitters batted .273 with a .321 on-base percentage, thanks in part to Ben Revere batting second when Denard Span led off. Both were traded during the offseason. In 2011, No. 2 hitters batted .232 with a .339 OBP. In 2010, it was .255 and .321.

Mauer significantly upgrades the potential of the top of the order while getting Willingham to the plate with a chance of a first-inning homer and early momentum. I wouldn’t mind seeing Morneau in the No. 3 spot when he’s going good because Mauer and Morneau have handled lefthanded pitching in the past.

Monday, Mauer reached on an error in the first, doubled in the third, walked in the fifth and singled in the seventh before flying out to left in the eighth inning — reaching base four times in five trips to the plate. His single in the seventh started the Twins’ best scoring threat in their 4-2 loss to the Tigers. The bases were eventually loaded and Mauer scored on Doumit’s single. Unfortunately for the Twins, both apprentice mashers, Plouffe and Parmelee, struck out to end the inning.

“However we can score the most runs is what I want to do,” Mauer said. “It’s a little different. You have to get ready a batter sooner. But I have the same approach and try to get after the pitcher like I normally do.”

Mauer said Gardenhire spoke with him about the change.

“He’s got the pen,” Mauer said. “I told him I just want to hit. Two, three, one, whatever. I just want to score some runs.”

Gardenhire liked the look of the batting order Monday, but there are no assurances that he will stick with it. He opened 2008 with Mauer batting second. After five games, Matt Tolbert popped up as the No. 2 hitter and Mauer was back at No. 3. In 2009, Mauer batted second in 33 games. Entering this season, he has batted second in 77 games, hitting .316 with a .373 OBP. Those are below his overall career numbers but still a sizable upgrade.

Some managers will settle on a lineup and try to stick with it as much as possible. Others tinker. Let’s see how far Gardenhire runs with this lineup. For now, he appears as committed as ever to letting Mauer do damage hitting second.

“I’m not talking about moving runners over with Joe Mauer,” Gardenhire said. “He’s a hitter.”

 

La Velle E. Neal III • lneal@startribune.com

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