MINNEAPOLIS -- Joe Mauer missed his third straight game on Saturday because of a stiff neck, and Minnesota Twins manager Ron Gardenhire defended his star catcher amid criticism that Mauer doesn't play through pain enough.
"He's played hurt more than any of these other guys have," Gardenhire said before the struggling Twins offense faced Justin Verlander and the Tigers. "And he's not getting credit for that."
His comments come two days after the manager told Mauer that "he has to be available" to help the short-handed Twins in a game against Baltimore. Mauer said then that he had little range of motion in his neck and bristled when asked about a perception by some fans that he is "soft."
In the first year of an eight-year, $184 million contract extension, Mauer has played in just 70 of the team's 132 games because of various injuries. His health problems, combined with the fact that he has hit only one home run this season, has tarnished the previously golden image of the hometown boy.
After missing most of the first two and a half months with a mysterious leg ailment, Mauer has been in the lineup virtually every day for the Twins, either at catcher, first base or DH.
He injured his neck while tracking a pop fly as a first baseman, but the Twins said they expect him back in the next few days.
"There's no way he can go in there and squat and do all those things now," Gardenhire said. "He's in a lot of pain. We're going to get him through this."
Michael Cuddyer was also out of the lineup with a sore left wrist. He was hit by a pitch on Wednesday night and played Thursday and Friday before needing a day to rest it.
Mauer talked on Thursday about changing his offseason program to make sure he comes to spring training in better shape, and Gardenhire said the Twins are confident he has a good plan in place.
"He realizes you can't sit around and not do anything as you get older," Gardenhire said. "He's going to stay after it. We talked about that. He's going to do some different things this winter and prepare a little bit more and a little bit longer and come into spring training ready to go."