There Joe Mauer was, standing in shallow right field along the first base line, warming up his arm two-and-a-half hours before Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. A few minutes later, the Minnesota Twins first baseman was backhanding grounders and tossing them to second with his usual zip. Then he took turns rotating in the batting cage with Jake Cave and Gregorio Petit and jogged a couple laps around the bases.
After the game, the Twins announced he would be headed to Triple-A on a rehab assignment. Manager Paul Molitor is hopeful it will only be two days — Tuesday and Wednesday — and then he will be back with the big-league club.
“I’m hopeful,” said Molitor. “We haven’t checked all the boxes. One of them is including playing a nine-inning game.”
Molitor will likely be the designated hitter in the first game, and then play first base in the second if all goes well.
“Of all the things that he’s tried to introduce himself to, in terms of stimulus and environment, playing a nine-inning game will be different than anything he’s done up to this point,” says Molitor. “So, I think it would make a lot of sense to have that as an option, to make sure that we don’t go backwards in some form.”
Mauer’s concussion symptoms are a specter that has haunted him since he was removed from a game against the Milwaukee Brewers on May 18 due to neck soreness.
“It all happened on a foul ball in Anaheim,” said Mauer, referring to a play where he dove after the ball on May 11. “I landed pretty hard and had some whiplash. Just been coming in and getting treatment and trying to get out there every day but today I got out there and it started to stiffen up and get a little worse. I talked to the trainers and coaches and they thought it was best if I got out of there before it got any worse.”
Concussion symptoms were not discussed that night. Mauer played every day from May 11 through the fifth inning on May 18. He hit .296/.321/.296 during that span, and only was the designated hitter twice. So it was a surprise when the team announced Mauer was having concussion symptoms on May 19.
“Well, Joe, going back to the play in Anaheim, has been trying to play through that neck thing, which obviously was worsening, to a point yesterday where it was a part of him coming out of the game,” said Molitor on the 19th, adding that the team doctors are labeling it a cervical strain.
“The concerning part I think for us is that there was also some accompaniment by some other symptoms yesterday that I think involved some balance issues and light sensitivity and things that didn’t sound good. So, we ran through the protocol last night and there was no definitive answer there as far as what exactly is ongoing. But, given his history and the fact that we’re already playing short-handed, it looks to me like it’s gonna be at least a few days.”
Later that day, Twins chief baseball officer Derek Falvey said that the team did not initially have any concern about the dive triggering concussion symptoms.
“We didn’t and Joe didn’t either,” he said. “I think at that stage he felt okay, stayed in the game, played subsequent days and has felt good at different times. He felt more of the neck soreness than anything else.
“We’re not saying at this time that Joe has a concussion,” he added. “We’re saying he has some symptoms that mimic some of that. So we want to be really cautious.”
Twelve days later, on May 31, Mauer returned to the clubhouse after taking batting practice and said he still experiencing concussion symptoms.
“Kind of slowly as it went on,” he said, adding that he felt it more in the field than at the plate. “After a few, just moving around it started to have to back off a little bit. I’m disappointed because I was making good progress, but I don’t anticipate it being a long or lengthy deal. I was hoping it would be a little bit better today.”
Asked if it was a concussion, he said: “I definitely had the symptoms. If you have the symptoms, you probably had one.”
Officially, however, the team has not officially ruled it a concussion. Mauer was put through concussion testing and saw specialists, and on May 31, Falvey said there were no definitive conclusions.
“I still cant say about any of that, just because these things aren’t always clear cut in the diagnosis,” he said. “He certainly had symptoms of something like that. He felt good for a period of time, obviously played through it for some stretch.”
It’s nearly mid-June, however, and the specter still lurks. Mauer looked fine as he fielded grounders, ran the bases and swung the bat on Sunday. Sometimes he feels fine. But that’s the thing about his injury, it’s not a physical ailment you can see, and the symptoms only manifest themselves periodically.
“That’s why it has been three weeks because things have cropped up,” said Molitor. “We have had to make sure we are paying attention to those things when they do. Trying to figure out what might be triggering them and what we can do better to prevent it going forward.
“Sometimes,” he concluded, “it is just time.”