Joe Mauer’s absence leaving Twins with key lineup hole

MINNEAPOLIS — When fans start filing into Target Field on Tuesday night, his name will stretch across more backs than any other. A local Catholic priest used him as an example of a modern-day hero in a homily about sainthood Sunday. He remains a central draw despite what’s looking more and more like his team’s third consecutive losing season.

When it comes to endearment to a community, he rivals Derek Jeter, Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky — and none of those guys grew up just across the river from their home venue.

He’s a shining example of a baseball man, a family man and a Minnesota man.

Yet his manager says it’s easy to overlook Joe Mauer.

“He does so much that I think he sometimes gets taken for granted,” Twins skipper Ron Gardenhire said.

Buried among the poor pitching starts and disappointing execution with runners on base has been a resurgent year for Mauer, whether standing to the left of home plate or crouched behind it. The 30-year-old is batting like he did in 2010 — the last time Minnesota made the playoffs — and gunning down baserunners like he did in 2007.

He is Major League Baseball’s seventh-best hitter for the second year in a row, an anomaly on a team full of sub-.250 slumpers.

It all may have been easy to forget. Until last Tuesday.

With Mauer shelved while trying to shake concussion-like symptoms, there’s suddenly not that surefire reliable batting second anymore. There’s not a 10-year veteran to calm a young pitcher when he gets into a jam.

And, perhaps foremost for the Twins at this point, there’s not as much reason for 30,000 people to sacrifice their weeknight to watch a 57-72 team.

“For me, as a fan, when I go the ballpark,” said Twins TV analyst and former catcher Tim Laudner, “I want to make sure Joe Mauer has a chance to be in the lineup.”

It sounds like he won’t be to start the series against Kansas City. Originally scheduled to meet with trainer Lanning Tucker on Saturday, a Mayo Clinic brain specialist advised Mauer to get some extra rest before resuming exercise.

If he’s not activated Tuesday, he can spend another seven days on the concussion list. If he’s still not ready to go after another week, he’ll be automatically placed on the regular 15-day disabled list.

Splitting the six games Mauer has missed, catchers Chris Hermann and Ryan Doumit have filled in fine.But they’re not Joe Mauer. No one but Joe Mauer is Joe Mauer.

He’s hardly shown any signs of aging this season, batting an American League fourth-best .324 and leading the Twins with an .880 OPS — tops since 2009. Defensively, he’s thrown out 43 percent of base runners, which ranks fifth in the majors.

Sharper with his throws and in tighter cahoots with his pitchers and middle infielders this year, Mauer has drastically improved his 14-percent caught-stealing mark of a year ago.

But with both Doumit and Mauer taking foul balls off the mask and subsequently landing on the seven-day disabled list this month, questions about the catcher position in Minnesota — and around the game — have arisen.On a national level, eight major league backstoppers have spent time on the seven-day list — instituted in 2011 — in the past month. Houston alone has two catchers, Max Stassi and Carlos Corporan, currently out with concussions, and Colorado’s Yorvit Torrealba, Detroit’s Alex Avila and Oakland’s John Jaso join them on the list. Kansas City’s Salvador Perez suffered similar symptoms and was reinstated Aug. 12.

In every case but Stassi’s, a foul ball off the mask was to blame.

Catchers have taken to wearing lighter, titanium masks that may or may not have facemask wings aimed at protecting the side of a player’s head. After his own stint on the DL, Doumit said he’d be fine returning to heavier, alloy headwear if it could guard better against concussions.

Mauer could do the same, but his value to the club is so great that he, Gardenhire and general manager Terry Ryan may consider a position change.

He’s a somewhat-proven first baseman, having played eight games there this year and 54 over the course of his career. More appearances as a designated hitter than the 30 he’s started in 2013 could be in store, too.

The Twins might even try him at outfield again; he made one emergency start there in 2011, catching three fly balls in right field.

Carving out a new everyday role for Mauer — who’s caught 920 of his 977 career games — would take some roster shuffling. Justin Morneau has been a mainstay at first, though he’s reportedly cleared waivers and is eligible to be traded until Aug. 31. Minnesota has no shortage of outfielders, either, and would need to find a third catcher if Doumit and Hermann remain in place.

No matter where he ends up, he’ll succeed, Gardenhire said.

“Nothing he does surprises me.”

Good thing, because this franchise just isn’t the same without Minnesota’s native son around.

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