Baseball lovers say any time you go to a ballpark you may see something unique.
You also might wind up with your first cases of ballpark-induced saddle sores, dehydration, cased-meat addiction, sunburn and night sweats all in one game, while watching Joe Mauer do something he had never done in his 14 big-league seasons.
Try this sentence on for size: Joe Mauer made his first out of the game in the bottom of the 15th inning, 6 hours, 23 minutes after the first pitch.
The Twins lost 8-6 in 15 innings to Tampa Bay on Sunday, in the second-longest game in team history, even as Mauer produced the most statistically efficient game of a career that once had him headed for the Hall of Fame.
Mauer had never done this before. Not when he roomed with Justin Morneau. Not when he was winning three batting titles or an MVP award, or battling alleged bilateral leg weakness, or turning into one of baseball’s most overpaid players.
Sunday, Mauer reached base in his first seven plate appearances. He would strike out in the 15th inning to ruin the hitters’ version of a perfect game.
He finished 4-for-5 with three walks. With Miguel Sano again out of the lineup, Mauer batted in his old No. 3 spot and hit a tying home run in the seventh. He hit two singles and a double and drew three walks, one of which was intentional.
Mauer and Rod Carew are the only Twins ever to reach base seven times in one game. “I felt good today,” Mauer said. “I wish the outcome would have been a little different. I had some good at-bats.”
Has he changed his approach this month? “Not really,” he said. “Not too far. You’re making adjustments throughout but nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing too crazy.”
One game is not justification for hope. But maybe one month can be.
In April, Mauer hit .225. In May, he is hitting .347 with six doubles and three home runs in 72 at-bats. He has drawn 13 walks. Sunday, he raised his on-base percentage from .337, which would be a career worst, to .363, which would tie for his best mark since 2013. He raised his average from .265 to .283, which also would be his highest mark since 2013. He has hit five of his 10 doubles in the past eight games.
Mauer hit two balls Sunday that were not of his usual bloop-to-left-field or grounder-through-the-middle variety. In the third inning. he lined an RBI double to right field, where outfielders rarely position themselves during his at-bats. “It’s where it was pitched,” Mauer said. “It was inside pretty good. He was kind of working me in there pretty good, so it was more of a reaction.”
In the seventh, he tied the score with a leadoff homer into the seats in left-center. Only two of his 15 home runs since the start of the 2016 season have been pulled.
Mauer’s three walks moved him into second place on the Twins’ all-time list. He has 840. Harmon Killebrew had 1,321. Kent Hrbek drew 838. Mauer’s homer gave him 133 for his career. He needs eight to tie Michael Cuddyer for 10th place.
Mauer performed like a star through 2009 and like a valuable if overpaid player from 2010 through 2013. The true downturn in his career began in 2014.
Keen observers like Tom Kelly and Roy Smalley have noted that Mauer’s swing had grown longer and slower and wondered if he would make allowances for age, as Paul Molitor did when he whittled his swing down to a twitch and a blur.
Mauer has stood by his belief that his swing had served him well. This month allows him to preserve that argument.
“It’s fun, I guess,” he said. “It was good. Had some good at-bats and was able to get on there.”
During the long day’s journey into night, Mauer signaled that he has a chance to stave off twilight.