MINNEAPOLIS — Justin Morneau has often joked, with perhaps a pinch of seriousness, that he’ll stop talking to Joe Mauer if his longtime friend ever leaves the Minnesota Twins.
Opponents would settle simply for seeing them split up in the lineup: Whether they’re batting second and third, or third and fourth, Mauer and Morneau are fast becoming two of the biggest names — and toughest outs — in the game.
American League managers know all about the potent combination playing in mid-market Minnesota.
“Probably the best back-to-back tandem of anyone in baseball,” Detroit manager Jim Leyland said.
Mauer, whose average dipped under .400 only two weeks ago, received more all-star votes than any player in the AL other than Derek Jeter and will start behind the plate in St. Louis next week.
In barely more than seven weeks after coming off the disabled list, Mauer has hit 14 homers to surpass his career high.
“I try to go out there and play the best I can, but I’ve had a good year so far and the fans usually get them right,” Mauer said, with as much bravado as he’ll ever offer.
“I’m just happy that they were watching.”
Mauer and Morneau were chosen for the all-star team for a third time each.
Morneau, a first baseman from New Westminster, B.C., was selected by his peers as a reserve after racking up .323 average, 21 home runs and 69 RBIs so far this season, good enough for the top five in the league in each category.
“That’s kind of what you play for: You play for the respect of your teammates and for the respect of the guys you play against,” Morneau said.
These guys have definitely got that. With a runner on third base and two outs in the bottom of the 11th inning last week, Leyland ordered intentional walks to both of them.
“I’m seeing Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau in my sleep,” Leyland said.
“I’m not going to let them beat you. … They’re just too good.”
Earlier in his career, Morneau struggled against lefties, often prompting manager Ron Gardenhire to separate the levelheaded, left-handed hitters in the order. Even for the season opener in 2008, Michael Cuddyer batted between them in the third spot.
This year, though, when Mauer emerged from his back injury and rejoined the team May 1, he was in the usual No. 3 hole with his buddy batting cleanup behind him.
Gardenhire calls them his “big donkeys,” assuredly in complimentary fashion.
“No one likes to have to mess with those two guys, and rightfully so,” Gardenhire said.
Mauer is 26, already his sixth season in the majors. He’s been injured a lot and he plays a dangerous position, but the smooth, steady swing he’s honed since childhood in nearby St. Paul would command a staggering amount of money on the open market.
Mauer is in the second-to-last year of his contract, so the clock has begun ticking toward a point the Twins can’t afford to pass — probably sometime this winter — without securing the hometown boy to a long-term deal.
Morneau, 28, is signed through 2013.