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U.S. leaning on Joe Mauer

3/15/2013

MIAMI -- Amateur baseball psychologists have a theory about David Wright and Joe Mauer playing at such great heights in the World Baseball Classic. There's a school of thought that the two players are emotionally invested in the event because their respective teams are going nowhere this season and the WBC is the closest they'll get to experiencing postseason play in 2013.

The theory makes some sense -- in the abstract. But it doesn't provide a smidge of insight into the qualities that make either player tick.

Wright, the All-Star third baseman for the New York Mets, and Mauer, the catching fixture for the Minnesota Twins, are going to take the same diligent, earnest approach to baseball whether they're representing their country in front of 30,000-plus fans and a national TV audience or playing in a Grapefruit League split-squad game with nothing on the line but a healthy day's sweat and the gratification of being well-prepared. That rare combination of dedication and talent has helped make them the heart and soul of Team USA.

But the dynamic took a sudden shift in a disheartening direction when a rib injury forced Wright from the lineup for the United States' 3-1 loss to the Dominican Republic and put his WBC participation in jeopardy. Late Thursday night, USA manager Joe Torre said he doesn't expect Wright to play again in the tournament, since Wright's main objective is to be ready in time for the Mets' regular-season opener against San Diego on April 1 and everything else is secondary.

"The WBC is very important," Torre said, "but it certainly isn't more important than making sure he's fine."

As Team USA prepares to face Puerto Rico on Friday at 7 p.m. with a spot in the semifinals in San Francisco on the line, which player will step forward and perform in Wright's absence? You could do worse than to pick the player 90 feet away, at the other end of the third-base line.

From the outset of the United States' WBC experience, Wright has taken the lead role on the team as "Captain America," a consistently clutch power source and the personal favorite player of Torre's 17-year-old daughter, Andrea (or at least the "favorite non-Yankees player," as Wright is quick to point out). But he has serious competition for the honor of most important player on the roster.

Mauer has been a force in his own right, as a calming and committed voice for the pitching staff and the team's cleanup hitter and resident on-base machine. He is hitting .444 in the tournament (8-for-18) with an OPS of 1.101.

In Team USA's 7-1 victory over Puerto Rico on Tuesday, Mauer drew three walks to help pave the way for a five-RBI night by Wright. Against the Dominican Republic, Mauer produced two of the United States' six hits and made a loud out with a 400-foot shot that died in the vast center-field expanse at Marlins Park.

San Francisco reliever Jeremy Affeldt sees a lot of 2012 National League MVP Buster Posey in Mauer. Or maybe it's the other way around, given that Mauer has been a big leaguer since 2004 and had dibs on the designation of wholesome All-American catcher when Posey was still a teenager. Mauer, a .323 career hitter in the majors, won the first of his three batting titles and four Silver Slugger awards in 2006 when Posey was making his mark at Florida State.

"When you have a guy who can call a game with the ability and the résumé Joe has and carry it with such humility, it's pretty awesome to see," Affeldt said. "What at an amazing guy. When he walks around the clubhouse, you know he's there, but he doesn't need to announce his presence. He's just there.

"I think that's the way he carries himself on the field. He's a really big guy with a big target. When he gets in the box, he has pretty good confidence and he's a tough out. When I want to see a baseball player that has confidence and leadership abilities, he's the total package for me."

The catcher's job is always a challenge in international competition, where pitch counts are an ever-present factor and pitchers with disparate styles and approaches are thrown together with the goal of becoming a staff on the fly. Toronto's J.P. Arencibia has been entrusted with the thankless role of catching R.A. Dickey's knuckleball. But day in and day out, Mauer is the guy who files away the scouting reports and takes charge behind the plate.

When you have a guy who can call a game with the ability and the résumé Joe [Mauer] has and carry it with such humility, it's pretty awesome to see.

-- Pitcher Jeremy Affeldt

Cleveland reliever Vinnie Pestano gained an appreciation for Mauer's influence against Puerto Rico in the Pool 2 opener, when he took the mound in the seventh inning. They conferred briefly before Carlos Beltran stepped to the plate to lead off, and Pestano was ready to bring some mid-90s heat.

"I told Joe, 'You know how I like to throw. You've got a scouting report on me,'" Pestano recalled. "I figured he was going to call a fastball because that's what we just talked about.

"He went sinker away, and I was like, 'All right, Joe Mauer just told me to throw a sinker away.' So I throw a sinker away, and Carlos Beltran grounds out to second. I thought, 'All right, there you go. I guess I'm going to trust Joe from now on and not worry about what I'm doing.'"

Team USA starter Ryan Vogelsong and Mauer will face a challenge Friday against a Puerto Rican lineup that features Giants outfielder Angel Pagan at the top and Alex Rios, Beltran, Yadier Molina and Mike Aviles in the run-producing spots. But Mauer will approach the game with the same meticulousness and calm that have defined him since his professional debut with the Elizabethton (Tenn.) Twins in the Appalachian rookie league in 2001.

The expectations have increased since Mauer signed a $184 million contract with Minnesota in the spring of 2010, and he's taken some criticism for his lack of home run power, his injuries and his so-so acting chops in those Head & Shoulders commercials. But Mauer is consistently held in high esteem among his peers for the way he has handled himself through good times and bad.

Mauer and Wright were among the earliest players to commit to Team USA in the World Baseball Classic. As bland as Mauer can be in his comments for public consumption, it's easy to see how energized he is by the competition.

"It's a lot of fun," Mauer said. "I've been having a great time. I've said it over and over: This is playoff-type baseball, and guys are really getting after it here in March."

Friday night at Marlins Park, it will be win-or-else for the United States team in its pursuit of its first WBC title. Joe Mauer probably won't say much before the Americans take the field against Puerto Rico. But rest assured he will come to play.