MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Everything has always seemed to come so easy for Joe Mauer on the baseball diamond.
That smooth left-handed swing brought him three AL batting titles in his first five full major league seasons. The big arm that made him a top quarterback recruit in high school helped him win two Gold Gloves the last two years.
Yet after his biggest season yet — a .365, 28-homer, 96-RBI season that earned him the AL MVP and an eight-year, $184 million contract extension — the Minnesota Twins' All-Star is having a very un-Mauer like season.
He entered the game Thursday night at Baltimore hitting .297 with just four homers and 41 RBIs and drew perhaps the harshest criticism of his career for laying down a bunt during a loss this week to the Cleveland Indians.
"I come to work every day. I'm working hard trying to turn it around," Mauer said. "It's not just going to come to you. You've got to put in the work."
Most catchers would be delighted to be hitting .297 this deep into the season. Most catchers, however, are not Mauer.
Whether it's a shoulder that has been sore for most of the season, pitcher-friendly Target Field or the weight of expectations generated from the huge extension he signed before this season, something seems to be holding him back.
Despite hitting third, a slot in the lineup that is designed to increase run-producing opportunities, Mauer has just one more RBI than leadoff man Denard Span. His slugging percentage (.439) is 58 points lower than where he finished last season and he has yet to hit a home run in his new ballpark.
Those dips have drawn calls for Mauer to be moved in the batting order, but manager Ron Gardenhire had him hitting third at DH for the series opener against the Orioles.
The biggest indicator that something isn't right came on Tuesday night against the Indians. With the score tied at 3 in the seventh inning, Mauer stepped to the plate with runners on first and second and one out.
With Indians third baseman Jhonny Peralta playing back, Mauer tried to bunt for a hit, but it stuck in the dirt and he was thrown out by catcher Carlos Santana. Jason Kubel grounded out to end the inning and the Twins lost 4-3.
The strategy brought an outcry from fans who have rarely criticized their St. Paul-born golden boy, who is easily the most beloved athlete in the Twin Cities. They wanted to see the face of the franchise swing away to try to put the Twins ahead, and they weren't alone.
"Ballplayers do stupid things. There's not anybody who's ever been out there that hasn't done something stupid in their career," former Twins catcher Tim Laudner said on the FSN postgame show. "We've all done it.
"If you were to ask Joe Mauer right now what kind of play that was, I would hope that he would say: 'That was a really stupid play. I'm the guy that's going to drive that run in. I'm the guy that's going to hit the ball into the gap and hit a double.'"
Third base coach Scott Ullger admitted he was surprised to see the bunt.
"I really can't recall a No. 3 hitter doing that, but stranger things have happened," Ullger said. "Joe's just trying to help win the game. Whether that's the right thing or the wrong thing, he's just trying to win the game."
Mauer said the combination of facing a tough lefty in Rafael Perez with Peralta playing back made it the right play for him at the time. But he added later that he is "not feeling the greatest at the plate right now. That factors in."
The Twins sure need him to start hitting like he always has.
They trailed the Chicago White Sox by 2½ games in the AL Central after Wednesday's games. They have also been without All-Star first baseman Justin Morneau since July 8 and are not sure when he is going to return from a concussion.
Gardenhire likes to say that Mauer is always one of the last players on his team he has to worry about, and that stance hasn't changed through this tough stretch.
"He's hit the ball hard the whole first half and doesn't have a lot to show for it," Gardenhire said. "If he keeps swinging, he'll be fine."