Twins’ Mauer is in rare form at the plate

MINNEAPOLIS — Joe Mauer is no stranger to batting titles. The Minnesota Twins catcher won three of them in the first eight years of his career, earning titles in 2006, 2008 and 2009.

After going 3-for-4 in Tuesday’s 6-4 Twins win over Baltimore, Mauer is now batting .333 and setting himself up for another possible race for the best batting average in the American League. He is currently in second in the AL behind Angels wunderkind Mike Trout. The 20-year-old outfielder is batting .355 for Los Angeles after starting the season in the minors.

Considering Mauer played in just 82 games in 2011 (a total he matched Wednesday) and batted a career-low .287, his numbers in 2012 make it appear as if the Mauer of old is back.

“It’s kind of one of those, ‘Oh well, it’s Joe’ type things again,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said after Tuesday’s win. “We’ve seen that before. He’s won a lot of batting titles doing that same thing.”

Aside from his three hits, Mauer also drew a walk to raise his on-base percentage to .420, tops in the American League. His final hit of the night came during the Twins’ two-run seventh inning that broke a 4-4 tie. Mauer singled to left field to drive in center fielder Denard Span from second base to make it a 6-4 game.

With that hit, Mauer surpassed former Minnesota infielder Chuck Knoblauch to move into eighth place on the Twins’ all-time hit list with 1,198. Tuesday was also Mauer’s 1,000th career game and his first hit Tuesday was his 100th of the season.

“He just seems to get his hits,” Gardenhire said. “He can flat-out hit, bottom line.”

While Mauer boosted the Twins with his bat on Tuesday, he also flashed the leather with what was perhaps his best defensive play of the season. With a runner on first and nobody out in the top of the sixth inning, Baltimore’s Ryan Flaherty attempted to bunt against Minnesota reliever Jeff Gray.

But Flaherty’s bunt attempt on the first pitch was popped up into foul territory between home plate and first base. Mauer leapt up from behind the plate, tracked the ball down and made a diving catch for the out as Gray and first baseman Justin Morneau looked on.

“It was an unbelievable play on his behalf,” Gray said. “He really popped up and got to it quickly.”

Mauer said he saw the ball well off Flaherty’s bat.

“I was kind of joking around with Morneau, I didn’t even know where he was. I just kind of locked on the ball and went after it,” Mauer said. “I was just happy to make the play right there.”

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire was able to poke a bit of fun at Mauer after the game despite his highlight reel catch.

“I think it’s going to be great for another commercial for Head and Shoulders,” Gardenhire said of Mauer, a pitchman for the shampoo company. “He said he was disappointed on the mound that his helmet didn’t come off because he thought that would have been better in the commercial.

“That was a great play. Sprawled out, he looked like he was back on the football field. Fantastic.”

There’s still plenty of baseball left to be played in the 2012 season — the Twins are now 38-52 after Tuesday’s win and have 72 games remaining on the schedule. But when the season nears its conclusion, there’s a good chance Mauer will be right there among the batting leaders in the American League.

Tuesday was already Mauer’s seventh multi-hit game in July (13 games), as he’s batting .370 this month. His .333 overall average is the highest is the highest it’s been this season.

Yet Mauer is still one to deflect the credit, instead lauding teammates Span and Ben Revere for helping spark the two-run seventh inning against Orioles reliever Pedro Strop.

“Denard keeping that inning going, and then Benny had a heck of an at-bat against a heck of an arm,” Mauer said. “That guy’s got great stuff. He was able to hit a breaking ball and keep the inning going. Hitting is contagious.”

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