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Updated: July 20th, 2010 11:43pm
Pelissero: Didn't execute? No, the issue is the message Mauer's bunt sent

Pelissero: Didn't execute? No, the issue is the message Mauer's bunt sent

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- It's hard to imagine more momentum being on the Minnesota Twins' side than it was in the bottom of the seventh inning on Tuesday night.

They had gotten an encouraging start from Kevin Slowey, who battled for 5 2/3 innings and left with a 3-1 deficit against the Cleveland Indians.

They were rallying in the top of the seventh, with J.J. Hardy, Nick Punto, Denard Span and Orlando Hudson stringing together consecutive singles to knot the score.

Span's was a bloop and Hudson's was a seeing-eye roller. The baseball gods finally on the scuffling home team's side at Target Field.

And then, with one out and the potential go-ahead run on second base, Joe Mauer dropped down a bunt.

Joe Mauer, the reigning American League MVP, dropped down a bunt.

Joe Mauer, the $184 million man, the pride of Minnesota, in the stadium that might not exist without him, dropped down a bunt to try to load the bases for Jason Kubel -- a slow-footed, left-handed hitter against Indians lefty Rafael Perez -- instead of trying to drive in the runs himself.

Shocking? Yes.

But it didn't fool Indians catcher Carlos Santana, who hopped out from behind home plate and gunned down Joe Mauer, the $184 million bunter, by a couple of steps.

Kubel followed with a weak tap-out to first base, Travis Hafner ripped an RBI double off Jose Mijares in the top of the eighth and the Twins failed to get another hit in a 4-3 loss.

"You can ask Joe about it, all right?" manager Ron Gardenhire said when asked a follow-up question about Mauer's decision. "I just told you -- I don't tell guys what to do."

Mauer had dropped down 29 bunts in his career, 26 of them in non-sacrifice situations. He'd reached base on 19 of them, good for a .731 average.

Third baseman Jhonny Peralta was playing back, too, and Perez has a cutter that dives away from left-handed hitters.

"If it works out, bases loaded for Kubel with one out," Mauer said. "I like those chances."

But this wasn't a situation for Joe Mauer, spokesman for fitness centers and ice cream and baseball bats, to drop the head of his Louisville Slugger and just to get on base. Especially not with regular clean-up hitter Justin Morneau watching from his couch at home, still nursing a concussion.

This was a chance to be the leader for a team that so desperately needs it, and instead, Mauer approached the situation like a No. 9 hitter.

After the game, Mauer acknowledged his struggles at the plate -- the three-time batting champion finished 1-for-4 on Tuesday, dropping his average since May 16 to a pedestrian .266 -- played into his strategy but refused to second-guess the decision.

"You bunt and you get out -- I don't like that a whole lot, especially for me," he said. "But like I said, I just didn't execute it, and if I did, everybody's probably like, 'Yeah, it's a pretty good idea.'"

Sure they would ... if the idea belonged to Punto.

This is Joe Mauer, leading vote-getter for this year's All-Star game, and he sure didn't become the highest-paid player in Twins history by playing set-up man in the clutch.

It's not as if he can't hit Perez -- in 10 previous matchups, Mauer was 3-for-8 with a double and two walks. (Kubel, it should be noted, was 4-for-7 with two doubles and two walks.)

One longtime Twins observer called the bunt the second-worst play in Twins history, trailing only "Disco" Dan Ford's failure to score from third base before another runner came in from second in the 1970s.

None of which is to say Joe Mauer, state hero, should wear a scarlet letter instead of his usual No. 7 in Wednesday's finale, which the Twins need to win to avoid getting swept. He's played hurt much of this season, and there's no questioning his commitment or desire to turn things around.

"If I hit into a double play, you guys are probably talking about that," Mauer said.

But what Mauer needs to understand is that the refrain he uttered repeatedly late Tuesday night -- "I just didn't execute" -- misses the point.

The Twins can't approach their playoff push with timidity, which is precisely what their best player oozed in the most important of situations on Wednesday night.

Joe Mauer, MVP, $184 million man, needs to set the example.

Even failure is a little less bitter when you play to win, rather than playing not to lose.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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