You know the story and the situation: four consecutive hits brought the Twins from a 3-1 hole to a 3-3 tie. There are runners on first and second with one out. Mauer is up against a lefty. Minnesota is on a roll. One more big hit will give the Twins the lead. And Mauer … bunts? Twins Nation is up in arms. The runners move up, Jason Kubel makes an out to end the inning, the Twins give up a run immediately and never sniff home plate again in a frustrating and costly 4-3 loss. So how is everyone right?
Well, the fans are right that it was an absolute white flag move from a shouldering the burden standpoint. Mauer is the face of the franchise. We all know he signed a huge contract. We all know he’s being counted on even more with Justin Morneau out of the lineup indefinitely. He’s the reigning MVP and a three-time batting champ. And no matter how you look at it, Mauer took a pass on a clutch situation. He passed the buck. Instead of trying to be the hero that every expects him to be and that his status dictates he should be, he reasoned that he could make it easier for the next guy to be a hero. And that is not what we like to see from superstars. They make the money, they take the big at-bat, they either get the fame or try again tomorrow. No middle ground.
Mauer’s reasoning, in part, was that he was facing a tough lefty with the third baseman playing back. “It’s just giving me a base hit. It got off the end of the bat, and I didn’t get it out there far enough. I didn’t execute. If it works out, it’s bases loaded for Kubel – I like those chances.”
And, well, he’s right. From a pure baseball standpoint, a bunt was hardly the worst thing he could have done. His greatest error from a “trying to win the game” point of view wasn’t in strategy or lack of guts, but rather, as he said, in execution. He had the element of surprise, a pitcher whose movement takes the ball away from lefties, a third baseman playing back and the knowledge that, worst-case scenario, a fair ball would put two men in scoring position … and best-case scenario a bunt hit would mean all Kubel had to do was hit a fly ball, a high chopper, a slow roller, anything to push the go-ahead run across.
"if I hit into a double play, you guys are probably talking about that. I didn't execute it," Mauer said, adding later, "If I did, everybody's probably like, 'Pretty good idea.' So yeah, I just didn't get it done."
True and pretty true. He would have been hammered if he rapped into a 4-6-3 and the Twins lost. He would have been given at least some credit had the bunt worked and Kubel came through. To a degree, it was an outcome-based critique from a lot of fans (at least as we saw it). And we hate outcome-based critiques. Sometimes an OK idea doesn't work. That doesn't make it the worst idea ever.
All that said, the reason plenty of folks were grumbling -- even those who also scrutinized the outcome -- were ticked was also revealed in Mauer's comments. We surmise it was also the reason Ron Gardenhire grumbled, "I don't ever tell a hitter what to do ... Ask Joe what his thoughts were." (And by the way, Gardy is also right. Anyone who wants to pin this up next to their laundry list of imagined grievances against Gardy is way off-base).
Mauer's tell-tale comment: "I'm not feeling the greatest at the plate right now, and that factors in." So as defensible as his position is that it was a reasonable baseball strategy, and as correct as he is that it would have been praised (at least to a degree) had it filled the bases, the decision was sparked by fear. If it's 2009 Joe Mauer rolling along with power and confidence, a bunt might not even occur to him. And if it does, he probably legs it out because he feels sky-high. The Tuesday night decision, however, came in part from a place of doubt.
That's the part that has to be most troublesome to a fan. Because it's the thing that tells us that even if part of Mauer was right, something isn't right with Mauer.