MINNEAPOLIS — There was a time earlier this season when Joe Mauer — the former MVP, the face of the Minnesota Twins franchise, and the hometown kid — was booed by the local fans. As the team struggled to score runs, Mauer was not producing at the plate the way fans had grown accustomed to seeing from the three-time batting champ.
After a solid homestand against the White Sox that saw Mauer drive in six runs in four games, the Twins first baseman has started to turn those jeers into cheers — and the losses into wins.
Entering the series opener Thursday against Chicago, Mauer was stuck on 16 RBI for the season. He had just two games in which he’d driven in multiple runs. And his batting averaged had dipped to .254, uncharacteristically low for the six-time All-Star.
Mauer’s two RBI in Sunday’s game were key in the Twins’ 6-5 win, which secured Minnesota’s first four-game sweep at home since 2007. Perhaps just as importantly, his six RBI series showed that Mauer has not forgotten how to hit.
"He’s stringing together some games where he’s getting some hits with runners in scoring position," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "Once you start feeling better about yourself, who knows what’s going to happen. He can take off with the best of them. He’s a big part of this offense. We need him to do those things. We’ll start winning more ballgames when he does."
Mauer was 2-for-4 in Sunday’s series finale, raising his average back up to .261 — still a long way from where he’s used to hitting. It wasn’t just the fact that Mauer drove in runs during this series, though, but it was the timing of those RBI that was critical.
Sunday, it was a fourth-inning single with Danny Santana and Brian Dozier on base. Mauer lined a single to center to score Santana and tie the game at 5-5 after Chicago took the lead in the third inning.
One day earlier, Mauer hit a double to deep left field that went off the wall (Mauer thought he hit it well enough to clear the fence). It scored Santana and Dozier and put Minnesota on top 3-2 in the fifth. And in Thursday’s series opener, Mauer again took advantage of Santana getting on base — he drove in the speedy shortstop twice in the Twins’ 4-2 victory. The first of two instances tied the game in the third inning, and the second proved to be the game-winner on a double to left.
"Danny and Doze have been getting on for me," Mauer said. "The other night, I had three chances, which I haven’t had a whole lot of chances like that in a game. Those guys are getting on and giving me the opportunity. I’m just happy to come through."
Mauer batted second for most of the season before Gardenhire dropped him to No. 3 in the order earlier this month. The change in the lineup didn’t seem to make much of a difference for Mauer — until this weekend.
With Santana thriving in the leadoff role and Dozier getting on base in the No. 2 spot, the RBI opportunities have started to become more plentiful for Mauer. Of his 22 RBI, Mauer has driven in Dozier the most times (seven) and Santana the second-most (five, including once on Sunday).
Mauer possess plenty of skills as a batter, with a high on-base percentage and a great eye at the plate among his many attributes. Power, though, has never been Mauer’s calling card aside from his MVP year in 2009, when he hit 28 homers. That year was also the closest he’s come to driving in 100 runs in a season, with 96 RBI.
One weekend series doesn’t necessarily guarantee that Mauer is back to his old form, but it’s a good start. There are still some numbers that indicate Mauer is having a down year — he’s striking out in a career-high 18.3 percent of his plate appearances, and drawing walks in just 10.3 percent of them, which is lower than normal. And according to FanGraphs, Mauer’s WAR (wins above replacement) is currently at 0.1. For reference, his career-low in that category was 1.2 in just 35 games as a rookie in 2004.
Given all of Mauer’s struggles, though, the last four games were a sign of encouragement for Minnesota. If the Twins are going to make a run in the AL Central — and they’re only five games out of first place after beating Chicago on Sunday — Mauer’s bat will be a big part of any success Minnesota has.
"You know what, if Joe Mauer heats up, you better watch out around the league," Dozier said. "He can hit with anybody. The good thing is he’s getting hits with runners in scoring position, which means the most. To be honest with you, he’s kind of been locked in the past few weeks."