MINNEAPOLIS Joe Mauer has been in the race before. Three times, he's emerged victorious.
Now, the Minnesota Twins catcher is trying to come from behind to win his fourth American League batting title. Mauer entered Wednesday's game in hot pursuit of Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera, who is a threat to become baseball's first Triple Crown winner since Boston's Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Cabrera ended Tuesday's game against Kansas City batting .329. After going 3-for-4 against the Yankees on Tuesday, Mauer was close behind Cabrera at .326.
But Mauer went 0-for-4 in the series finale against the Yankees on Wednesday, dropping his average to .323. He struck out three times against New York ace CC Sabathia before grounding out in his final at-bat.
That dropped Mauer behind Angels rookie sensation Mike Trout, who is batting .324 entering Los Angeles' game Wednesday night against Seattle. Meanwhile, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter is still in contention with a .320 average after going 0-for-4 with a walk Wednesday against Minnesota.
It's turned into a four-horse race for the AL batting title with one week left in the season. If Mauer takes the lead down the home stretch to win it, few people if any will be surprised.
"I think we all take him for granted. He makes it look too easy," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of Mauer. "Three hits here, two hits there. It's a constant with him. It is fun to see him."
Winning a batting title would cap what has been a bounce-back year for the 29-year-old Mauer. A season ago, he played in just 82 games, missing half of the year with numerous injuries. Bilateral leg weakness sidelined Mauer for two months early in the 2011 season, and a bout with pneumonia shut him down for the final two weeks. As a result, Mauer batted a career-low .287.
But he has been healthy in 2012 and has yet to make a trip to the disabled list. Wednesday marked his 141st game played this season, the most since he appeared in 146 in 2008. Only outfielder Josh Willingham has played in more games (145) than Mauer.
Mauer has also moved around the field a bit, playing a number of games at first base, as well as designated hitter and, of course, catcher. Getting out from behind the plate from time to time has helped preserve Mauer's body and has kept him in the lineup more frequently.
Healthy once again, Mauer has seen his swing return to form. That could ultimately translate into yet another batting title.
"I don't think he's really left the top of the game. Injuries happen and you might get beat up here and there were you can't perform up to your capabilities," Gardenhire said. " We know what we have here. We have a really good baseball player who's very gifted offensively and defensively and one of the best players in the game. You live with the injuries. When he's healthy, he's as good as there is in the game."
Mauer and the Twins will face off with Cabrera this weekend as Minnesota hosts Detroit for a three-game series at Target Field. It will be a chance for two of baseball's best hitters to go toe to toe as each chases a batting title.
Cabrera laid claim to his first batting title last season, when he hit .344 with the Tigers. Mauer, meanwhile, won batting crowns in 2006 (.347), 2008 (.328) and 2009 (.365). He also won the American League MVP during that 2009 season.
Mauer knew the Cabrera question was coming after Tuesday's game, when he inched to within three points of the Tigers slugger. Does Minnesota's catcher follow what Detroit's third baseman is doing?
"I'm keeping an eye on it. When you're eating and things like that, the TV's on," Mauer said. "But I'm just trying to come out and do what I do and just trying to have good at-bats and play the game hard like I always do."
Though Mauer says he doesn't pay much attention to the batting race, that doesn't mean he would take the title lightly if he were to win it. As the Twins finish out their second consecutive losing season, Mauer has been one of the bright spots for Minnesota.
"Oh absolutely, don't get me wrong with that. You know, I'd love to win," Mauer said. "But obviously if you start thinking about that, you start trying and that's when it doesn't happen for you."
The Twins, meanwhile, will have a front-row seat this weekend as Cabrera tries to make history. Prior to the Tigers' game Wednesday night against the Royals, Cabrera led the league in two of the three Triple Crown categories. His .329 average and 133 RBI were the best in the AL, but he currently trails Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton in home runs; Hamilton has the edge, 43 homers to Cabrera's 42.
While the Twins don't necessarily want to be the ones to give up a crucial home run to Cabrera, they can appreciate the season he has had even if he plays for their AL Central foe.
"Obviously I think Joe Mauer's a really good hitter, but I think Cabrera might be the best hitter in baseball, to be honest," said Twins reliever Brian Duensing, who has given up two home runs to Cabrera in 31 at-bats over his career. "He's just a constant threat. You've always got to be aware of him. It's really hard to hit a baseball, so when you see what he's been doing lately, it's impressive."
With the addition of another wild-card team in each league, the last few weeks of the MLB season have some added intrigue as a number of teams battle for playoff spots. But watching Mauer chase Cabrera and Cabrera chase the Triple Crown gives fans even more to look forward to in the final week of the regular season.
"These are good things for baseball, Triple Crown guys," Gardenhire said. "Those are good things. This game misses those things. There's a lot of great players out there, and that's probably why you don't see it as much. But to see one guy doing it is incredible."
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