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Twins catcher Joe Mauer anxious to put last season behind him

John Shipley, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. –

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Joe Mauer didn’t catch a bullpen session last spring until March 12, nearly a month into camp. Today, the first workout for Twins pitchers and catchers at the Lee County Sports Complex, Mauer was in full gear catching Jason Marquis, Carlos Gutierrez and Brendan Wise.

“It was good to get the gear back on,” he said. “I wasn’t really too worried about it.”

Well, a lot of Twins fans were.

Mauer hasn’t been entirely healthy since midway through the 2010 season, when the Twins last won the American League Central. He played through a bad knee down the stretch, ultimately having surgery that December. His slow recovery dragged into spring training last year and, in a very real sense, ruined his 2011 season.

Limited to 82 games by leg and neck injuries, and ultimately by pneumonia, he hit .278 with three homers and 30 RBIs, all career lows.

So, yes, his appearances behind a plate today carried some importance. The Twins lost 99 games last season, their second worst since moving to Minnesota in 1961, and it’s impossible to see them competing for a playoff spot without a healthy Mauer. He doesn’t need to have another MVP season – .365 batting average, .444 on-base percentage, 28 homers in 2009 – but it will at least have to be comparable.

Today marked the first step. He caught a bullpen session, worked with pitchers on fielding drills and took some batting practice.

“He went through everything. He’s ready to go,” manager Ron Gardenhire. “He feels

good, he’s had a good winter, and he wants to play baseball. That’s all he’s ever wanted to do, and he didn’t get that opportunity enough last year.

“You’re not going to find too many guys out there that want to get back on the baseball field more than he does.”

On Saturday, Mauer said he’s never been more excited for spring training. Today, he told hitting coach Joe Vavra, “This is the best I’ve felt in a long time.”

“It’s almost like you want to get out there and do everything the first day, but it’s a process,” Mauer said. “It was good working today, though.”

Though the Twins used the disabled list a major league-high 27 times last year, and fellow AL MVP Justin Morneau was hit by injuries, too (he played only 69 games), Mauer was the face of the team’s failures, just as he had been the face of its successes the past few years. The fact that it was the first year of an eight-year extension paying him $23 million annually didn’t help, nor did his ubiquitous presence on televisions and billboards and in magazines.

So while the Twins collectively must set aside a historically bad season, Mauer also has to set one aside personally. Asked if he enters 2012 with a chip on his shoulder, the catcher said, “I think so. I think that’s everybody in this clubhouse.”

“If you don’t have that chip on your shoulder, then something’s wrong,” he added. “I think everybody, including myself, is just embarrassed about how last year played out.”

Mauer played in just eight spring training games last season, and got just 20 at-bats on the big league side. He spent virtually the entire first month rehabbing his legs, to no avail, it turns out. After just the second regular-season series of the year, he was placed on the DL with what the team called “bilateral leg weakness.” He couldn’t catch or bat.

When he started playing first base in July, it was ostensibly because Morneau couldn’t; but really it was a test balloon for his future. As good as Mauer has been – three batting titles, three Gold Gloves, the MVP award – he has played 140 or more games just twice in seven seasons. Certainly, catchers don’t play 162, but Mauer’s bat is too good to leave at the mercy of a physically demanding, and awkward, position.

Mauer was very good in 16 starts at first base last season, and though he and the team insist that catcher is his position, he will start taking turns at first this spring.

“There’s no doubt he’s going to go over there at first base,” Gardenhire said. “As we will do during the year, be able to move him around, have that luxury with (Ryan) Doumit behind the plate and Joe at first base, all of those things. There’s no doubt he’ll play some (this season), so he’ll play it down here.”

Mauer, too, is comfortable with the shift, and has acknowledged the importance of keeping his offense in the lineup. There is also the matter of winning, and the career catcher says he will do whatever is required. After six division titles in nine years, last season left an especially bad taste in everyone’s mouth.

“We’re used to winning around here, and last season happened,” Mauer said. “You can’t ignore it or make excuses (about) what happened. I think it’s probably good for everybody to check themselves in the mirror and make sure something like that doesn’t happen again.”

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