FORT MYERS, FLA. - No injury updates, MRI exams or calls for a position switch. It was about as drama-free a spring training as Joe Mauer could have had.
He spent the offseason focused on physical conditioning. He reported to camp in February encouraged by the shape he was in. He played in more official spring-training games than he ever has and said he feels his swing is about ready for prime time.
Is the All-Star Joe really back? Opponents will find out starting on Friday when Mauer digs in against Orioles righthander Jake Arrieta in Baltimore.
As he finished packing for the first road trip of the year, it was obvious that he's mentally and physically in much better shape than he was last year, when he was tormented by problems with his legs and criticism from fans.
"I'm just looking forward to being out there playing," he said. "I think when I'm out there on the field things will take care of themselves. Last year, I was just fighting to get in the lineup, and a lot of times I probably shouldn't have been out there but I wanted to be out there for my teammates.
"You learn a lot and you hope you don't have to go through anything like last year."
Mauer had left knee surgery following the 2010 season, had a setback in his recovery and was just emerging from rehabilitation mode when he arrived at camp. He didn't have enough time to condition properly, and it caught up with him in mid-April, when he was suffering from what the Twins called "bilateral leg weakness." He also was fighting a viral infection. He was never himself, physically, the rest of the season.
Mauer was able to put in an entire offseason of conditioning before this spring training camp. Not counting trips to the minor league fields for extra work, Mauer played in 19 games and had 56 at-bats, the most he has had in any spring training. He batted .357 with no homers and 13 RBI.
The three-time batting champion said he fell into a few bad habits with his swing last season while trying to fight through injuries, and he spent early spring games addressing that. Much of it came from not being able to use his back leg because his left knee was still sore. This spring, he's had to reintroduce the lower half of his body to his upper body, an important relationship for hitting the ball farther.
"It's tough to drive the ball the way I like to without having your back leg, really," Mauer said. "It's exciting for me, actually. This spring I've had to slow things down. Things have felt good and I've gotten anxious and maybe a little too quick. I'm starting to feel pretty good at the plate."
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said the injuries also affected Mauer's ability to catch and throw from behind the plate.
As for hitting: "Joe's bad mechanics are everyone else's good mechanics," Gardenhire said.
Mauer won't say how many games he would like to catch this season. With Justin Morneau announcing this week that he plans to be the designated hitter early in the season at least, that's one place Mauer won't be able to go when he needs a break from behind the plate. He started the exhibition game on Wednesday at first base and is expected to play there occasionally this season, especially when rookie first baseman Chris Parmelee is pulled out of the lineup because a tough lefthanded pitcher is starting.
Gardenhire said he will speak to Mauer daily about where and how much he will play.
"I'm not going to kill him early in the season and will let him get his days off," Gardenhire said. "There's a lot involved, and we're going to do the best we can to keep him on the field."
Mauer deferred to Gardenhire when asked about how Morneau's decision to play more DH affects him.
"I've always told him all along that, however he wants to use me, use me," Mauer said. "But I think we're a better ballclub when I'm behind the plate, and if I can get over to first or get a DH here and there, I think that'll help throughout the season."
If Mauer is healthy and in a good frame of mind, what type of year can he have? He batted a career-low .287 last season with three homers and 30 RBI in 82 games.
Twins General Manager Terry Ryan is eyeing Mauer's career .323 batting average and .403 on-base percentage.
"There no reason why he can't bounce back to his career numbers," Ryan said. "I haven't seen anything here that would make me waver from thinking he's going to have a fine year. He's an eight-year [experience] guy. Usually players in their prime, if they are coming off an injury or a down year, they'll get back to their career numbers.''
Starting Friday, the Twins will find out if Old Joe is back. He will break camp fully healthy, and historically Mauer is a force when he is healthy.
"I'm excited to get going,'' Mauer said, "and I think when the lights turn on, that is going to help out a lot, too."