BLAINE, Minn. (AP) — Joe Mauer has been warning eager teammate Joe Nathan to avoid overexertion during spring training as the Minnesota Twins closer completes his comeback from elbow surgery that kept him off the mound last year.
“I’m trying to get in his ear, saying, ‘April 1st. April 1st,”‘ Mauer said this weekend, mentioning the date of the season opener. “It’s still January.”
That applies for a certain catcher, too, coming off a number of nagging injuries he played through in 2010 and minor surgery he had in December to alleviate some swelling in his left knee.
“My advice to Nathan, I’m taking that to heart, too,” Mauer said, looking ahead to his own plan for February and March. “I should be ready to go when we report. Just got to be smart about it and get ready for the season.”
After winning the American League MVP award the year before, Mauer’s production dropped while playing the sport’s most physically demanding position and dealing with aches and pains. His on-base-plus-slugging percentage decreased from 1.031 to .871, a mark still good for 23rd in the majors but a bit disappointing for fans anticipating more after he signed an eight-year, $184 million contract extension in March that has begun in 2011.
The problem for Mauer, as an All-Star catcher, is that there’s no way to lessen the wear and tear of the job short of switching positions. Neither he nor the Twins are ready to do that, with Mauer not yet 28. His impact as a designated hitter is limited for now, too, with at-bats wanted for Jason Kubel and Jim Thome.
“It’s part of the job,” Mauer said. “Last year, I got beat up pretty early, and when you have injuries and stuff like that early in the season you deal with it the whole year. Playing baseball, we don’t have six days to get healthy. We’re playing seven days a week. You start compensating, and that just leads to another thing.
“So coming into this year: Try to take care of yourself as much as you can, and I’m looking forward to getting out there,” he said.
Mauer bruised his left heel on April 30 when he lunged at first base legging out a grounder, forcing his foot hard on the bag. It was a fluke injury, but crouching behind the plate doesn’t help it heal. He only missed eight games, but he said he thinks the heel problem led to the soreness in his knee, the same one he hurt in 2004 that limited his rookie year to 35 games. Mauer was also bothered last season by pain in his throwing shoulder.
“It just kind of snowballed and kept going,” said Mauer, who appeared in 137 games and was the starting catcher 107 times. “Looking back, I was happy and proud to be out there as much as I was. That’s kind of my thing: I want to be out on the field as much as I can, and that’s what I’m planning on doing this year.”
In 2009, Mauer was slowed by a lower back problem and missed all of spring training, delaying his season debut to May 1. He wound up with career highs in home runs (28), batting average (.365) and RBIs (96) and the aforementioned MVP honor. Perhaps a lighter preseason load will keep Mauer fresher longer and lead to the same kind of result.
“He’s our go-to guy,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s going to do most of the catching. That’s just the way it is. If it becomes an issue down the road then we make a move and put him somewhere else. But he wants to catch, and he’s our catcher. We need him in the lineup.”
Mauer’s teammate, right fielder Michael Cuddyer, is also coming off an offseason operation — two, actually. He played through right knee pain last year and had arthroscopic surgery shortly after the Twins were ousted from the playoffs. Then he felt a stomach ache less than two weeks later that led to an appendectomy.
Cuddyer, in town for the weekend with dozens of future, current and past Twins players for the team’s annual fan festival, said his leg is back to normal, perhaps stronger than before. While Nathan, Mauer and first baseman Justin Morneau, who’s coming back from a concussion, will be brought along slowly in spring training, that kind of approach is foreign to Cuddyer. That’s no knock on them. It’s just his nature.
“The first game starts, and I want to go 4 for 4,” said Cuddyer, the longest-tenured player on the team. “I can’t get on a baseball field and say, ‘I just want to fine-tune some things to get ready for April. Me, I can’t do that. I want to be ready to go day one of spring training.”
The Twins are being cautious with Morneau, who has been ramping up his workouts and reporting progress in his recovery. Nobody is concerned about how much baseball activity he’ll have in February or March. Just like with Nathan and Mauer, it’s all about April 1.
“We want the best for him,” Mauer said. “He’s obviously a great teammate, a great friend. We’re more worried about his health as a person. That’ll be nice to see No. 33 back on the field.”
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