MINNEAPOLIS — Though it’s not apparent by their attitude or approach to the game, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau are living large right now as a small-market version of the M&M boys.
Two easygoing friends, enjoying life in the big leagues — with their smooth left-handed swings entrenched in the heart of the Minnesota Twins’ lineup at a combined age of just 46. Most contending teams wouldn’t rely on such youth in such critical positions, but these guys aren’t ordinary players.
“I enjoy watching those two young men come up back-to-back,” said manager Ron Gardenhire, who briefly considered separating Mauer and Morneau in the order to prevent the opposition from bringing in a tough left-handed reliever to face both of them in the late innings.
But they each hit lefties fairly well. Plus, Mauer is a line-drive machine who belongs in the No. 3 spot, and the natural power Morneau possesses makes him destined to bat cleanup.
“Putting someone in there between them? I don’t understand why,” Gardenhire said. “M&Ms are good — chocolate or peanut. … You’re not going to pinch hit for them. No matter who they bring in.”
Given their alliterative last names and their potential for greatness, comparisons to Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris (the original M&M boys, with the New York Yankees in the 1960s) have been bandied about. That’s a suggestion that Mauer, the 22-year-old catcher, and Morneau, the 24-year-old first baseman, are quick to dismiss.
They’re not even too keen about acknowledging how important they are to the Twins’ present and future.
“If you start thinking about all that stuff,” Morneau said, “it’s not good for you.”
Instead, their baseball thoughts are more centered on learning pitchers around the league and taking the necessary time to be consistently successful sluggers.
“At this level, it’s about understanding what pitchers are trying to do to you and letting your ability take over,” hitting coach Scott Ullger said.
Entering the weekend, Mauer was batting .319 with four homers and 16 RBIs in 116 at-bats — almost identical to the numbers he put up as a rookie last year. That season was cut short by an injury to his left knee, and the strain that crouching puts on that joint caused many inside and outside the organization to wonder whether he’d be able to catch again.
But Mauer has alleviated those concerns, which makes Minnesota very happy. The 2001 first draft pick overall, who grew up in St. Paul just a few miles from the Metrodome, is just as valuable to the team with his defense and handling of the pitching staff as he is at the plate.
“It’s a lot of responsibility,” Mauer said.
Morneau, like Mauer, has always had the sweet swing, but he’s had to work harder in the field. Originally a catcher, Morneau also dabbled in the outfield in the minors until moving over to first.
“It was entertainment,” Gardenhire said, remembering the 6-foot-4 native of British Columbia’s initial struggles to get his feet and glove up to major league standards.
Hard work paid off, however, and Morneau’s presence at first has helped keep the Twins’ young, inexperienced infield from falling apart defensively.
“I feel like they have confidence in me,” Morneau said. “If you had told them or me two years ago that they’d put me in the eighth inning for defense with a three-run lead, we wouldn’t have believed you.”
Morneau, drafted in the third round in 1999, replaced fan favorite Doug Mientkiewicz last July — forcing the team to trade the Gold Glove winner. Morneau finished with 19 homers and 58 RBIs in just 280 at-bats.
This season, bringing a .358 average, seven homers and 24 RBIs into the weekend, Morneau is poised to become Minnesota’s first 30-homer hitter since 1987.
He grew up playing hockey, but baseball won out. It’s hard to imagine him doing anything else after watching a few rounds of batting practice. Mauer and Morneau are in the same group, and most eyes at the ballpark are turned to the cage during that time.
“They try not to overdo it,” Ullger said. “But every now and then they’ll smoke one, and you’ll be like, ‘Wow.’ “
What helps is a desire to keep improving, rather than merely letting their talent take over.
“Just trying to get better every day, every part of the game. If you stay the same, that’s not good,” Mauer said.
Morneau doesn’t let his skills distract him, either. Not even those tape-measure shots to the outfield.
“It just kind of makes me laugh,” he said. “It’s fun to be able to do that, you know? I’m just happy when they go over the fence.”
The Twins are a small-market team that relies on developing its own draft picks, and Mauer and Morneau are exactly what they have in mind when touting that tenet.
“You always knew they were going to hit,” said Toronto third baseman Corey Koskie, who played for Minnesota for the past six seasons. “They’re as close to can’t-miss as you’re going to get.”
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