By Jon Krawczynski, AP Baseball Writer
MINNEAPOLIS -- In his final at-bat against Oakland on Sunday, Joe Mauer ripped a double off the wall in right field.
That has been the exception more than the rule for the Minnesota Twins' All-Star catcher early in the season as he works to find the comfort zone that made him a three-time AL batting champion and earned him an eight-year, $184 million contract extension that kicked in this year.
Mauer is hitting .233 with three RBIs in his first eight games this season, and that double that slammed off the wall at Target Field remains his only extra-base hit. He has grounded out to second base nine times in 30 at-bats, and Mauer himself admits that he just doesn't feel quite right at the plate yet after a low-key spring training.
"I've been struggling a little bit," he said after the home opener on Friday. "Not feeling too great. Still try to go out there and give good at-bats. You know it's going to come around. You go through these stretches throughout a season."
Mauer had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in the offseason and had a very light work load in Florida to try and reduce the wear and tear on his legs and stay fresh for the rigors of catching an entire season. He played in just eight games in the spring and had only 20 at-bats to work on his timing.
Of course, Mauer has shown in the past that spring training can be overrated. He missed all of spring training and the first month of the 2009 season with back issues before hitting .365 with 28 homers and 96 RBIs to win the AL MVP award.
"You'd like to get off to a good start but we've had maybe 20 at-bats so far and we're looking at 600 or 500 for the season so it's a short stretch," Mauer said. "Hopefully get out of it soon."
Mauer has a hit in five straight games and has come through in a couple of big situations already this season. His single in the 10th inning in New York on April 5 scored the winning run in a rare victory over the Yankees and his RBI-single in the eighth inning against Oakland on Friday lifted the Twins to a 2-1 win.
Perhaps even more important, that hit was a hot grounder down the third base line, beating an infield shift that a lot of teams are starting to deploy against the left-handed Mauer.
"You notice it every time I step in there, but I'm just trying to hit the ball hard wherever it's pitched," Mauer. "As I've gotten older I've started looking for things. But I'm not going to change too much."
Mauer is flourishing compared with many of his teammates.
The Twins are hitting .214 as a team and have scored just 24 runs in nine games, which is second-worst in the AL. Jim Thome (.167), Delmon Young (.188), Michael Cuddyer (.107), Danny Valencia (.194) and Alexi Casilla (.167) all are hitting under .200.
"You're not going to see us hit .100 the whole year," Cuddyer said. "That's just not going to happen. It's frustrating. There's no doubt about that. ... But at the same time, we know we've got good hitters in here that aren't going to hit .100 or even .200 for the whole year."
Cuddyer said all the time that he, Young, Mauer and Justin Morneau missed in spring training with various injuries could be contributing to the sluggish start. Maybe they just need a little extra time to get back in the groove.
"But at the same time, you get up there and your adrenaline starts flowing during the season," Cuddyer said. "Yeah, you need your timing worked out and that could be something, but I wouldn't attribute all of the fact that we're not hitting to spring training."
Mauer has averaged just under 498 at-bats a season over the last six years, so his 30 at-bats to this point represent only about 6 percent of his season. So even though he hasn't hit the ball particularly hard yet, everyone is confident that it's only a matter of time.
"When it clicks," Young said, "it's going to be an ugly event for the opponent."