For Mauer, a fitting stage for No. 2,000

Milestone knock a treat for fans of longtime Twins icon

April 13th, 2018

Joe Mauer got his 2,000th hit exactly as he should get his 2,000th hit -- cold night, tough left-handed pitcher on the mound, long at-bat, a near strikeout ("Mauer just gets a piece of it"), a ground ball through the drawn-in infield, two RBIs, parents and grandparents in the stands -- all of it happening just 8.4 miles from Mauer's high school if you decide to walk it (a little longer if you go via Minnehaha Avenue).

On Aug. 19, 2013, Mauer was about as sure a Hall of Famer as anyone in baseball. He was a six-time All-Star, a three-time Gold Glove Award winner and the 2009 American League MVP Award winner. He was the only AL catcher to win a batting title, and he had done it three times. He was a lifetime .323 hitter, and he was just 30 years old.

On that day, Mauer took an Ike Davis foul ball off the helmet. You wouldn't exactly say it looked harmless; the ball hit so hard that it ricocheted all the way up into the stands. But there was no immediate panic about it. Mauer was down for a little while, but then he was up; he stayed in the game until the end.

It was the last game Mauer played in 2013. It was the last time he would catch in the Major Leagues. He would suffer from blurred vision for three years.

When injuries essentially end a brilliant young player's career -- the Bo Jackson hip injury, for instance, or Mark Prior's arm troubles or Herb Score getting hit in the face with a line drive -- they gain a sort legendary status our minds, a what-if alternate universe where they stayed healthy and made it to the Hall of Fame. Thing is with Mauer: He didn't go away. Instead, he went to first base, and he played through the concussion aftermath and he just wasn't as good as he had been.

For three years, Mauer hit .267 with staggeringly little power and it was hard to watch. He played every day, and the Twins kept hitting him at the top of the lineup. Mauer was making so much money, and a depressing new aura built around the guy: fans, a lot of them, griped about him. There were calls to trade him and complaints that he was untradable. "Put him on waivers," was another suggestion. Mauer complaints were a staple of Minneapolis talk radio.

This was hard for Mauer fans. I've always loved the guy. For a time, I used to write a fairly regular blog series called the "Mauer Power Hour." But after three years, it was time to face facts.

Then, in 2017 -- his eyesight issues apparently behind him -- Mauer was pretty darned good. He wasn't quite vintage Mauer, no. But he hit .300 for the first time since the injury, and while he still didn't hit for much power (.417 slugging percentage 50 or so points lower than Mauer in his prime), he was valuable. He also played a good first base; I believe he could have and maybe even should have won the AL Gold Glove Award at the position. The Twins went back to the playoffs for the first time since 2010, and Mauer was a big reason -- he was fantastic in September, hitting .343/.404/.461.

This year, Mauer has been crazy good. It's only a few games, but it's still amazing to see that .412 batting average next to his name. He has drawn 10 walks in 10 games. The rebirth of Mauer is one of my favorite stories in baseball.

Mauer's 2,000th hit was just like his first

Thursday night was Mauer's night. In his first plate appearance against young White Sox starter , he looked at all five pitches he saw. Four of them were balls and he took the walk. There was a calmness about Mauer, I thought -- the sort of thing you see in great old veteran hitters who have seen young pitchers come and go. You see it in , too.

Next time up against Giolito, Mauer rifled a line-drive single up the middle for hit No. 1,999.

Some 2,000-hit facts: Only 286 players in baseball history before Mauer had reached 2,000 hits -- I don't know if you would call that an "exclusive" club, but it's certainly a stylish and chic one. Before Mauer, exactly 100 players in baseball history had 2,000 hits and a lifetime .300 batting average. Two Twins -- Hall of Famers Kirby Puckett and Rod Carew -- were on that list.

Now it's three. The 2,000th hit was perfectly staged, with the White Sox bringing in lefty to get Mauer out. Managers have brought lefties in to get out Mauer from the start; he has faced 330 left-handed pitchers in his career. He had already faced Bummer twice and failed to get a hit either time.

The crowd wanted the moment; people stood with the cameras pointed toward home plate. Bummer did almost strike Mauer out, which would have fit his name, but he just barely got a piece of it and fouled it into the ground. Two pitches later, with the infield in, he grounded the single through. It wasn't a thing of beauty, but then again, that's exactly what it was. Mauer went to first base and took off his helmet to salute his hometown.

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Buxton bases

has now stolen 28 consecutive bases -- he stole two more Thursday night -- and he is pretty quickly moving into impressive territory.

Only eight players in baseball history have stolen 35 bases in a row. The last was Jimmy Rollins back in 2007 leading into '08; he stole 37 in a row. The record of 50 in a row was set by Vince Coleman in 1989.

It does not seem possible to throw Buxton out on the bases. He was called out on his first attempt Thursday, but he immediately pointed to the dugout to get them to challenge, and on replay it was clear that he was never even tagged on the play. Buxton is so absurdly fast and so athletic around the bag that it would not surprise me at all if he keeps this streak going for a long time.

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Stanton slump

is slump prone. Most hitters who strike out a lot like Stanton will go into prolonged slumps periodically. You look at the last five years of Stanton:

2017: Started the season hitting .226 with 19 strikeouts through 14 games

2016: Had a 28-game stretch in which he hit .119 and struck out 48 times in 101 at-bats

2015: Had a 25-game stretch in which he hit .208 with 39 strikeouts

2014: Beginning July 4, had a 31-game stretch in which he hit .216 with 42 strikeouts

2013: Hit .176 with 21 strikeouts in first 14 games of the season

Some of these slumps are longer than others, but the point is that Stanton's titanic offensive style leads to big slumps and it also leads to extraordinary stretches (like last season, when he hit 23 homers in 35 games).