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Morneau sizzles at plate, but also impresses with his glove

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN
  • Star Tribune
  • July 11, 2008 - 11:36 AM

Justin Morneau is hitting .324 after going 5-for-5 Thursday, with a game-winning homer in the 11th inning to lift the Twins over the Tigers 7-6 and end a three-game losing skid.

That puts Morneau third in the American League batting race behind the Rangers' Ian Kinsler (.335) and Twins teammate Joe Mauer, who is second at .328. Morneau is second in the league in RBI with 68, trailing the Rangers' Josh Hamilton, who has 89.

In addition to being a great hitter and a possible candidate for a second MVP award, Morneau has become a great-fielding first baseman. With only two errors this season and a .997 fielding percentage, he ranks third in the league among first basemen. Carlos Pena of Tampa Bay and Casey Kotchman of the Angels are tied for the lead at .998.

Morneau, who broke into pro baseball as a catcher, credits former manager Tom Kelly, former coach Al Newman and manager Ron Gardenhire for his improvement as a first baseman.

"He's just fundamentals," Morneau said of Kelly, who works with the Twins first baseman in spring training. "He knows me, he knows what I'm doing. Footwork ... he'll break it down, he'll be five feet in front of you rolling you balls, just to make sure you get your footwork right. Then he'll back up and hit it from 20 feet and then he'll go all the way to the plate and hit it. You build it up slowly and then he gets you going and he makes you focus. If you don't make the right play he'll let you know, and it's good because he makes you better."

Newman was Morneau's first minor league manager and he was on hand when the decision was made to move Morneau to first base.

After Morneau made it to the majors, Gardenhire got involved in his instruction.

"Gardy loves working with infielders. It's unfortunate that he's always so busy as a manager that he doesn't get to do as much of that as he likes," Morneau said. "He likes working with those middle infielders."

Yankee Stadium is a great hitters' ballpark, and it wouldn't be a surprise if Morneau put on a great show in Tuesday's All-Star Game.

Miller's exposure

One reason local players are signing with colleges all over the country is because AAU programs have expanded and coaches are getting to see these basketball players in tournaments across the nation. This is one reason new Timberwolves swingman Mike Miller of Mitchell, S.D., wound up with the Florida Gators.

"Well, you know with this AAU circuit and the way kids are traveling around and playing basketball these days, it started a while ago, that's what I was doing," Miller said. "You get in venues and tournaments with coaches from all over the United States, from Division I to Division II to NAIA. [Florida] coach Billy Donovan came to quite a few of my games and it just escalated from there."

Miller said the Gophers recruited him and he ''looked heavily" at the school so he could stay close to home. "But, at the end of the day, coach Donovan, and making my own mark at the University of Florida, was something that won out," he said.

Jottings

Athletic director Joel Maturi said the new stadium should help the Gophers move out of the bottom five of the conference in football income. Maturi said universities fill out federal revenue forms each year and send them to the government. The football revenue statistics include money generated from ticket sales as well as preferred seating and other revenue directly related to football.

"Ohio State's number one at $59 million and Northwestern is at the bottom at $15.5 million and we're not far from the bottom. We're a little over $17 million," Maturi said.

Wisconsin will be the Gophers' first Big Ten opponent when the new stadium opens in 2009. The Gophers open play at Syracuse and then will play Air Force in their first home game and California in the second home game before the Badgers come to town. This will be a great challenge for coach Tim Brewster. Nobody can complain about that tough schedule.

Mauer and most of the Twins are big on community service. Mauer contributes to a number of charities and donated $15,000 to buy new uniforms for the players in Saturday's all-star game between Minneapolis and St. Paul high schools at Griffin Stadium.

With Twins stars Mauer, Joe Nathan and Michael Cuddyer signed for next year, Twins executive Rob Antony will have only five free agents to negotiate with -- Nick Punto, Adam Everett, Craig Monroe, Dennys Reyes and Livan Hernandez. The club has an option on catcher Mike Redmond and is sure to exercise it. Only two players are eligible for arbitration -- outfielder Jason Kubel and pitcher Matt Guerrier.

Devoe Joseph, the Canadian basketball star who has signed with the Gophers, was expected to enroll in summer school after his Olympic tryout but apparently will wait until fall to enroll. This is a blow to Tubby Smith, who wanted the outstanding guard to work out this summer with other recruits in the Howard Pulley League. ... Former Gophers basketball player Quincy Lewis, who made a nice contribution to the Williams Scholarship fund, is playing in the Pulley League and will play basketball in Spain next season. ... Traye Simmons, the Gophers junior college transfer from Marietta, Ga., and the College of the Sequoias in California, is enrolled in summer school. Scouting reports predict he will be one of the top defensive backs in the Big Ten.

Martin Bayless will be helping the Vikings as a part of the NFL Minority Internship Program. He previously coached with the Raiders and Texans and played 13 years in the NFL with St. Louis, Buffalo, San Diego, Kansas City and Washington.

Ex-Gopher and NBA player John Thomas is making a comeback playing with the Milwaukee Bucks in the Las Vegas summer league.

Former Gophers Ben Hamilton and Tyrone Carter are two of 75 players named to the Sun Bowl 75th Anniversary team. ... Michael Wuertz, a native of Austin, Minn., is the setup man for the Cubs after starting the season as a closer. Wuertz is 1-1 with a 3.55 ERA.

Clayton Rask, an outstanding former Gophers golfer, shot a 63 in the final round of the Saskatchewan Open last week to finish in a six-way tie for fourth. Another ex-Gopher, Justin Smith, tied for fourth place with a four-round total of 264 at the recent Hooters Tour Classic at Spring Hill, Tenn.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on his Podcast twice a week at www.startribune.com/sidcast. shartman@startribune.com

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