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Mauer doesn't have to actually hit .400 to captivate the country. The mere possibility of it is the attraction. No other question hangs as tantalizingly over this season as this: Can a player, a catcher no less, hit .400? "Ah, I don't know," says Mauer, whose stress-free approach doesn't change whether atop the batting race or a riding mower. "We've got a lot of baseball left. I think it's way too early for that [talk]. I'm trying to keep it simple. I've tried to have a good start. It's probably not going to last forever, but I'll try to hold on to it as long as I can."
The odds are heavily stacked against him. Only one player in the 68 years since Williams hit .406 has been at or above .400 after Aug. 3: the Royals' George Brett, who was hitting .400 on Sept. 19 and 13 games later finished at .390. (Honorable mention goes to the Rockies' Todd Helton, who entered September 2000 hitting .395 but went 8 for 40 over his next 10 games and wound up at .372.) Remember the excitement just last year about the Braves' Chipper Jones, who was hitting .400 on June 18? Perhaps not, because he hit a routine .320 the rest of the season to end up at .364.
Mauer's mission is made even more difficult because of the rigors of his position. No catcher has ever hit better than .367, and that standard, established by the Brooklyn Dodgers' Babe Phelps, has stood for 73 years. And while Mauer is a career .332 hitter before Aug. 1, he is a .305 hitter in the final two months, when the toll of catching comes fully due. Based on his current rate of at bats, Mauer would need to hit .397 over the Twins' remaining 91 games to become the first .400 hitter since Williams. Last week he admitted, "I'm starting to feel more aches than I normally would this time of year. I think it's the [artificial] turf, because I feel it even more when we're at home. I listened to guys like [former teammate] Torii Hunter who played on turf for a while, but it never got me until this year."
But then, Mauer already is a two-time batting champion, who only now is entering his prime and exhibiting the power long foretold for him. He also has the wisdom that accrues from more than 2,500 major league plate appearances, and his approach to hitting is as close to slump-proof as anyone's in baseball. Mauer undertook no baseball activities, weightlifting or running all winter and into spring training because of a blockage in a kidney that required surgery and inflammation of the right sacroilac joint, which connects the spine to the pelvis. When finally given clearance to play ball in late April, Mauer played in five minor league games before joining the Twins on May 1, whereupon he promptly homered on his first swing. He hasn't stopped hitting since. In addition to his .407 average, Mauer had already hit a career-high 14 home runs and led all big leaguers in on-base and slugging percentage. His batting average has been below .400 exactly one day this year, a hiccup at .397 on May 20.
"This may sound crazy," Twins shortstop Brendan Harris says, "but it's not like he's been hot. He hasn't. He's just so consistent. It's every day. He doesn't change. Every day, every at bat, he just stays within himself. So even if he has an 'off' day, that just means he's 1 for 3 with two walks."
"Yes, it's possible," says Minnesota outfielder Delmon Young of a run at .400. "His cooling off is everybody else's hot. It's amazing to watch, even for the rest of us. We have the best seat in the house and don't even have to buy a ticket. It would be something to tell your kids someday, 'I played with the last guy to hit .400.'"
Hitting .400 is so difficult that only two men alive even played with a .400 hitter: Bobby Doerr, 91, and Herb Hash, 98, the lone survivors among the 29 Red Sox who were Williams's teammates in 1941. So how can Mauer, at least in the small sample of this season, make something so hard look so easy?
Forget the math and the probabilities and the projections because the greatness of Mauer is sometimes better grasped anecdotally. Last week, on the Pirates' team flight to Minneapolis, Pittsburgh pitching coach Joe Kerrigan waved the advance scouting report on Mauer as if it were a white flag.
"Are these right?" Kerrigan said. "Are these misprints? They must be misprints!"
"The reports," Pirates coach Rich Donnelly explained, "basically showed he doesn't strike out, doesn't pop up and has no holes. It's like with Tony Gwynn, Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols. When you go over the reports on hitters like that, you basically just go, 'Next.' Why waste five minutes? And Mauer is putting himself in that class."