The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Mauer's season at new position for Twins has so far been underperformance, not All-Star level

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MINNEAPOLIS - As Joe Mauer walked back to the dugout, the bat in his hand and a sour look on his face, there were boos from the Minnesota crowd.

Mauer struck out to end the inning, with a runner on third base in the seventh on Wednesday and the Twins trailing 1-0. Everybody does this, of course, in a sport with a 30 per cent success rate at the plate long proven to be a benchmark of excellence.

Failures this year have piled up for Mauer faster than usual for the six-time All-Star, three-time American League batting champion and one-time AL MVP.

"I'm a heck of a lot more frustrated than they are," Mauer said that night, when asked about those jeering fans.

The sound of those boos has been jarring, considering he's the hometown guy from St. Paul with the handsome looks and the hitting skills to build a .321 career batting average, the best among all active players in baseball with at least 3,000 plate appearances. Minnesotans are fiercely proud of and protective of their natives, so Mauer figured to have a lifetime pass in the popularity department here.

After signing that $184 million, eight-year contract extension in 2010, though, he has become a more-frequent target of criticism from fans frustrated by the team's struggles the past several years.

The 28 home runs he hit in 138 games in 2009 were a one-year wonder. Lingering lower-body injuries limited him to 82 games in 2011. This season, his on-base-plus-slugging percentage was at a career-low .704 entering the weekend series in New York. Mauer is also on pace to blow by his career-high strikeout total of 89 set last year.

"I feel pretty good actually, which is even more frustrating," he said. "I'm hitting a lot of balls hard and just not having much to show for it. So hopefully that turns here soon."

Mauer isn't the only one sputtering with the Twins. The team's batting average with runners in scoring position fell to .214, the second-worst in the league, after losing three of four games to Texas this week.

"We're putting together a lot of good at-bats but still not driving people in with runners in scoring position. That's the main focus, getting guys on, but we can't get them in," second baseman Brian Dozier said.

Mauer reluctantly gave up his job as the catcher to better protect himself from another concussion, after missing the final six weeks of last season following a foul tip that hit him in the head. The loss to the Twins of Mauer's intelligence and defence behind the plate was supposed to be trumped by an increase in his availability and production at a less-taxing position.

He missed five games with back spasms earlier this month, but since then he said he feels fine. The problem has been these paltry totals: nine extra-base hits and 15 RBIs through Thursday.

"The expectations are very high for him. People get frustrated. I just don't want Joe to get frustrated. I know he is a little bit right now, because he doesn't have the results he wants. But I don't want to put any more pressure on the guy," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I just want him to just keep being himself, keep swinging, and he'll be fine."

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Dave Campbell on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/DaveCampbellAP

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