Though he has played three different positions to help the team compensate for injuries this season, Joe Mauer himself has missed 60 games, 58 while rehabbing leg weakness in extended spring training.
The timing has been bad. While Mauer was rehabbing in Fort Myers, Fla., his teammates were floundering through a dismal start from which they haven't recovered. He also started the first season of an eight-year extension that will pay him $23 million a year.
Mauer didn't play in Thursday's 6-1 loss to Baltimore, this time because of a stiff neck, and was asked by St. Paul Pioneer Press columnist Bob Sansevere about the growing perception that Mauer is soft.
"Oh, really," Mauer said. "Well, who's saying that?"
A lot of people are saying it, mostly Twins fans frustrated by the team's 2011 flop -- they were expected to contend for a World Series title -- and the concurrent lack of production by their most expensive player. Mauer signed his megadeal largely in response to his 2009 AL MVP season, when he hit .365 with 28 homers and 94 RBI.
Since then, Mauer has 10 homers -- one this season -- and has missed 85 games, a reality even a hometown hero can't evade for long. In 60 games this season, Mauer is batting .287 with one homer and 25 RBI.
"You ask anybody in here, anybody in this organization and they'll tell you different. People know in here how tough I am," Mauer told Sansevere. "I come to the park ready to play. And today I just physically couldn't get out there."
Mauer isn't alone here; nearly everyone in the Twins organization has been under attack for this season, from general manager Bill Smith to part-time, rookie infielder Trevor Plouffe. Only Michael Cuddyer, the team's all-star and one of two regulars to avoid the disabled list this season, has survived with his reputation intact.
Cuddyer left Wednesday night's game after being hit in the wrist by a pitch. He had an MRI Thursday morning, then played in the 12:20 p.m. start, going 1-for-4. It was the kind of move that throws Mauer's inability to play in a harsh light, though manager Ron Gardenhire defended his catcher.
"I trust their judgment on what they can and can't do. As a manager, I go with it," he said. "Forcing a guy to play is not the right thing to do; you can hurt him even more. But in a situation like with Joe, I told him I really need you to be able to (play) because I only have two catchers. And he said, 'Fine.' "
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