High- average Joe

Originally Published: June 26, 2006
ESPN.com

BASEBALL TONIGHT EXTRA

Those who thought that Joe Mauer would develop into a superstar in 2005 were a year too early. In 2006, Mauer has emerged as one of the game's best pure hitters, flourishing big-time during the Twins' magical resurrection in June.

On Monday, Mauer had four more hits and five more RBI as the Twins pounced on Dodgers pitching. Minnesota has won primarily on the strength of its pitching, but Mauer could make a legitimate case for league MVP honors, shouldering a big burden as a catcher who produces on both the offensive and defensive end (15 caught stealing in 37 attempts).

Steve Phillips of "Baseball Tonight" was among those who scoffed when Mauer was taken No. 1 in a fantasy league consisting of a group of ESPN staffers. A lot of major league executives, however, will tell you that Mauer is showing why he's a legitimate franchise player.

NOT YOUR AVERAGE JOE: MAUER'S JUNE STATS
Batting .415
Home runs 1
Runs 15
RBI 11
Games 21
Hitless games 3
Monday vs. Dodgers: 4-for-5, 5 RBI

BRAVES SHOULD ADD, NOT SUBTRACT

The Atlanta Braves have had a difficult start this season. It's been a tough ride, and they'll have a huge uphill battle in the second half of the season.

Catching the New York Mets does not seem feasible, considering that the Braves are at the bottom of the NL East. Without question, they have fallen, but this does not mean they have failed. The Braves don't need to win the division to make the postseason, because they still have a shot at the wild card. While they would need to have a significant comeback in the second half, the Braves could possibly be the fourth team in at the end of the year.

If you look at the teams competing right now for the wild-card position, the Cincinnati Reds are the only team that has maintained a record over .500. And we all know their starting rotation is a question mark. Look at the Phillies -- they have a losing record. The NL West does not have any dominant teams; last year the Padres won the division with a record just over .500. The same thing appears to be happening again this season. The Dodgers are playing well, but the other teams in the division are just average.

So the question becomes, are the Braves too far behind some of the wild-card teams right now? I don't believe they are. There's still some experience and leadership on that team. Manager Bobby Cox has known nothing but winning since he became the manager in 1990. If anyone can turn a team around, he can.

Without question, the Braves should hang on to John Smoltz. They should also avoid trading Tim Hudson, Chipper Jones or any other member of their team who can help them get back into contention. The Braves should be looking to add, not subtract.

We'll find out starting right now if the Braves have just fallen, or if they have failed.

NEWS AND NOTES
• Dodgers RHP Brett Tomko is still listed as Wednesday's probable starter against the Twins, but his status is in doubt due to a strained left oblique muscle suffered in Friday's victory. A decision will be made by the end of Tuesday's game.

• Brewers SS J.J. Hardy, who was placed on the DL with a severe right sprained ankle on May 17, is still in the middle of his recovery process. No rehab plans have been set.

BIG PAPI STRIKES AGAIN
Red Sox DH David Ortiz delivers another game-winning hit against the Phillies.
FORWARD THINKING: TUESDAY
Mets at Red Sox, 7:05 ET: A pair of rookies square off at Fenway Park. When he's on, the Mets' Alay Soler (2-1, 3.32) generates a lot of ground-ball outs. Jon Lester, making his fourth big league start, has allowed two earned runs in his last two starts (12 innings).

'Roger ClemensAstros at Tigers, 7:05 ET: If Roger Clemens (0-1, 3.60) is going to last more than five innings, he'll need to be more efficient early. He threw 73 pitches through three innings in his season debut. The Tigers send Nate Robertson (7-3, 3.38) to the mound.

Dodgers at Twins, 8:10 ET: Derek Lowe (6-3, 2.90) hasn't lost since May 16, a span of seven starts. Twins lefty Francisco Liriano (7-1, 2.17) made a big splash on the national scene in his last start, throwing eight masterful innings against Clemens and the Astros.

Tuesday's probable starters

TUESDAY'S TOP PERFORMERS
Jason Giambi homered twice (both coming against former A's teammate Tim Hudson) and drove in five runs as the Yankees beat the Braves 5-2.

Randy JohnsonRandy Johnson, pitching on six days' rest after serving a five-game suspension, tossed seven shutout innings for the Yankees. He allowed four hits, struck out a season-high nine (seven his last three innings) and didn't walk a batter.

Travis Hafner went 2-for-4 with a pair of home runs (Nos. 20 and 21) in the Indians' 10-3 victory over the struggling Cardinals.

PHOTO OF THE DAY
Russell Martin
Dodgers catcher Russell Martin slaps a midair tag on the Twins' Michael Cuddyer.
ELIAS SAYS
Josh Johnson The Marlins' Josh Johnson has a 1.89 ERA in 10 starts this season. Over the last 20 years only three other rookie pitchers have posted an ERA under 2.00 in their first 10 starts of a season: Zach Duke in 2005 (1.83), Cal Eldred in 1992 (1.26) and Pedro Astacio in 1992 (1.80).

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