MINNEAPOLIS — Joe Mauer is struggling, and Twins fans are letting him hear it.
After Mauer struck out to end the seventh inning with a runner on third in Wednesday’s 1-0 loss to Texas, Minnesota’s first baseman walked back to his dugout amid a chorus of boos from the fans at Target Field. As a six-time All-Star, three-time batting champion and former American League MVP, Mauer hasn’t heard that type of reaction very much in his 11-year career.
But with the face of the franchise hitting .277 with two homers and 15 RBI — subpar by his lofty standards — Minnesotans have started to grow restless with Mauer’s drop in production at the plate.
"It’s part of the game for everybody. I know it’s not been a big part for Joe around here, but it’s part of the game," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of the boos. "Fans are frustrated. They show it. It’s always been part of the game. I think for Joe, he hears it. Believe me. We all hear it. People have the right to do whatever they want to do when they come to this ballpark. I just hope that he doesn’t put more pressure on himself. I want him to just keep being himself, keep swinging and he’ll be fine."
During his career with Minnesota, Mauer has hit a combined .321 with a .403 on-base percentage. When he led the league in batting average in his MVP year in 2009, he batted a whopping .365 with an OBP of .444 (also a league high). He also hit 28 homers this year, a mark he hasn’t come close to duplicating since.
That big year in 2009 played a part in the Twins signing him to an eight-year, $184 million contract extension prior to 2010 that pays him $23 million a season. The big contract, coupled with the offensive numbers not matching what he put up five years ago, has led to a segment of the fan base voicing their opinion at home games.
"It was tough," Mauer said after going 0-for-4 in Wednesday’s loss. "I’m probably a lot more frustrated than those people that were booing."
Mauer, who switched from catcher to first base this offseason, missed a few games with a stiff back earlier in the year. When asked Thursday if the back was still bothering him, Mauer’s answer was clear: "No."
So what’s the cause for his drop in offense? Mauer feels he’s just getting unlucky at times. He’s hitting more line drives than ever in his career — 28.6 percent of the balls he’s put in play have been classified as line drives — but he’s hitting them right at the defense.
"It’s been frustrating. I’ve had some good at-bats and hit the ball hard," Mauer said. "It seems like I’m hitting it at people. Hopefully I’ll get a few to fall here."
Mauer’s swing hasn’t changed much since he first broke into the majors in 2004. Aside from the 28 homers in 2009, he’s never been much of a power guy or a pull hitter. Instead, he’s had success hitting the ball to the opposite field.
Now more teams are starting to shade him down the left field line, taking away hits that may have been doubles in years past and turning them into outs.
"You start trying to guide it and do this and that, you get yourself in trouble trying to do something you’re not used to," Gardenhire said. "He’s made adjustments. But like I said, right now, I don’t know how many times he’s lined out to left field. He’s hit balls right down the left field line on the line, and you’ve got an outfielder standing there. That’s the way they’re playing him. Those used to be hits."
Like every player, Mauer has gone through slumps in his career. His latest slump has seemed to draw more ire from the fans than in years past. But Mauer’s manager has seen what he’s capable of doing at the plate and doesn’t believe his current dry spell is anything to worry about longterm.
"I don’t know if you start counting all the balls that this guy hits on the button. I can promise you it’s as many as anybody in the league that he hits on the barrel of the bat," Gardenhire said. "The expectations are very high for him. People get frustrated. I just don’t want Joe to get frustrated, and I know he is a little bit right now because he doesn’t have the results that he wants.
"I don’t want to put any more pressure on the guy. The guy, he goes out and plays and gets after it pretty damn good and he works hard. He’s got a great swing. No one wants to win more than that guy."