Teammates marvel at Mauer's patience, ability to make contact as he reaches 2,000 hits
MINNEAPOLIS—When Joe Mauer banged out career hit No. 1,998 on Wednesday afternoon, a line single to left off Houston's Lance McCullers Jr., Miguel Sano jumped off the bench and went running down to Twins manager Paul Molitor.
"How many more? How many more?" Sano demanded.
"That's a lot of hits," Sano said before Thursday night's game against the Chicago White Sox where Mauer reached the milestone in the seventh inning with a two-out single. "He's one of the best hitters I've seen in my life. He's a special hitter."
Mauer, 34, established that much with three American League batting titles by the end of his fifth full season in the majors.
His lifetime batting average remains .309, sixth among active players, but it will climb again if he can keep up a hot start that had him at .387, third in the AL, heading into his four-game weekend series.
"Not a lot of people can reach those goals," Sano said. "Like they say, if he didn't have so many injuries and the (2013) concussion, I think he'd have more hits. He'd be fighting for 3,000 or 2,000-something."
Sano, who entered Thursday with 299 career hits, said it's Mauer's patience and bat-to-ball skills that amaze him the most.
"That's the only guy I've seen that gives two strikes easy to the pitchers," Sano said. "Not everybody can do that. I heard something one time: In four years (in high school) he had one strikeout. He's not a home run hitter. He's a contact hitter. He's going to put the ball in play all the time and go the other way."
Indeed, Mauer is a career .252 hitter with two strikes, including .319 when the count is full. In all counts he has a swinging-strike rate of just 8.6 percent; major league average during his career is 15.5 percent.
Mauer's .392 on-base percentage ranks fifth among active players. His career walk rate (12.0 percent) is just behind his strikeout rate (12.8 percent), and his 960 career runs were outpacing his 954 career strikeouts.
"It's all about patience," said Ehire Adrianza, the Twins' super utility man. "I'm just trying to learn how he goes up there and fights every pitch. It doesn't matter if there's nobody on base or he's got bases loaded, the patience he's got at the plate is amazing. It's unbelievable."
Molitor and his coaches often urge younger Twins to slow the game down. Mauer does it with a preternatural calm.
"He makes it look like it's easy to hit, but that's the way he is," Adrianza said. "He's got the gift from God and he takes advantage of it. As a young player, you're trying to play hard with whatever you feel in your heart and with your emotion. But he looks so calm sometimes, it's incredible."
The other eight hitters in the Twins' Thursday lineup entered with a combined 3,754 hits: Brian Dozier (847), Logan Morrison (726), Jason Castro (559), Eduardo Escobar (503), Eddie Rosario (375), Sano (299), Max Kepler (227) and Byron Buxton (218). Off the bench the Twins had Robbie Grossman (349), Adrianza (110), Mitch Garver (11) and Ryan LaMarre (six).
"It's good learning from people like that," Sano said of Mauer. 'He has a lot of experience, 14 years in the big leagues. You don't see too many people who can have a beautiful career like that."
Molitor continued to play it coy when asked the identity of Friday's scheduled starter, even though most signs pointed to veteran Phil Hughes coming of the 10-day disabled list after dealing with a mild oblique strain.
A weekend snowstorm that could hit as early as Friday night was one reason the Twins were holding back on naming a starter. There also was an element of gamesmanship as they faced the White Sox in their first series of the year against an American League Central rival.
One scenario Molitor did rule out was a bullpen game in which the Twins would try to squeeze multiple innings out of Rule 5 rookie right-hander Tyler Kinley, who has worked mostly as a one-inning reliever in his career to this point. Last year's long reliever, Tyler Duffey, has opened the year at Triple-A Rochester.
According to STATS Inc., Max Kepler's big Wednesday against the Houston Astros made him the youngest player in major league history with a multi-homer game, including a walk-off homer, against the defending World Series champions. Kepler, at 25 years and 60 days, supplanted Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx, who was 25 years, 294 days old when he did the same against the New York Yankees on Aug. 12, 1933. ... Friday night's game will be carried on Fox Sports North PLUS due to Game 2 of the Wild's opening-round playoff series against the Winnipeg Jets.