Jim Souhan: Morneau is working overtime to restore punch in his swing

  • Article by: Jim Souhan
  • Star Tribune
  • May 6, 2007 - 9:53 PM

Justin Morneau is a 25-year-old who, after winning the American League MVP award, bought a new house in the suburbs.

Before Sunday, he hadn't had a night off in the Twin Cities since April 15. He's got enough money to keep him in Vancouver hockey jerseys for the rest of his life, and he knows Joe Mauer, which means he can get into any place in Minnesota for free by whispering the password: "sideburns."

So what was Morneau doing spending much of the evening sitting in a cramped, dark room with hitting coach Joe Vavra, watching video of his swing long after his teammates had ventured into the night?

"I'm just looking," he said, like a window shopper at a ritzy mall who's contemplating an expensive purchase.

He was doing more than looking. Every uniformed member of the team had left the clubhouse 15 minutes before Morneau emerged, and Morneau had yet to strip off his beloved Willie Mitchell Canucks T-shirt and take a shower.

Roger Ebert didn't watch this much film. Hugh Hefner doesn't spend this much time studying the human form.

This is where Morneau finds himself, though, in terms of responsibility. First Jeff Cirillo got hurt, then Rondell White, then Michael Cuddyer and now Mauer, robbing increasingly important hitters from what has proved a thin and punchless lineup.

The less everyone else produces, the more Morneau demands of himself, a compulsion that proves dangerous in a game that draws a distinction between swinging hard and hitting hard.

"It could be better," Morneau said of his swing. "It's a little frustrating. All it takes is one good swing, and it turns around like that. I'm not down on myself or anything. I expect it to be better, and it will get better."

By the time he finished watching video for an hour and a half after the game, It was Morneau, a writer, and four clubhouse workers remaining. A radio was playing in the back room, fighting to be heard over the vacuum cleaner.

It was suggested that Morneau is swinging better than at this point last year, when his average hovered around .200.

"Yeah, but last year, I was also hitting .270 with runners in scoring position," Morneau said. "That's the thing -- I'm always looking for something positive, and that was something positive. I was hitting .200, but I think in the month of April I hit .280 with runners in scoring position.

"Now I'm hitting, but it doesn't matter when there's nobody in scoring position. In the middle of the order, RBIs are all that matter, really."

In the Twins' 4-3 loss to Boston on Sunday, Morneau went 1-for-4 with a single. He's hitting .267 with six homers and 17 RBI, but he hasn't produced an RBI in a victory since Tuesday, and hasn't homered since April 28.

None of this is reason to take away his shoelaces, but Morneau's struggles have coincided with a team slump that recalls the glory days of Scott Stahoviak. They managed three extra-base hits in three games against Boston -- or as many as Red Sox No. 9 hitter Dustin Pedroia managed the last two games.

With Mauer headed to the disabled list, Morneau will probably move up in the order from his comfortable No. 5 spot. Will he press to make up for Mauer's production?

Morneau smiled. "I think I've put enough pressure on myself already," he said. "I don't think I need any more.

"Really, when you lose someone like Joe, no one player can make up for that. He gets on base 45 percent of the time. Everybody's just got to contribute."

The M&M Boys weren't supposed to be Maimed & Muttering in May, but that's where they find themselves.

"We're still pretty confident," Morneau said. "We all know we haven't played that well. We haven't been consistent at all.

"You think it's going to turn around, then you go 0-for-your-next-8 and say, 'What the heck's going on?' And that's when you go sit in the video room for an hour, trying to figure it all out."

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on KSTP AM 1500. •

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