Jim Souhan: Morneau is becoming Mr. Essential to Twins

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 28, 2007 - 11:14 AM

Last year's Most Valuable Player is proving to everyone that 2006 was not a fluke.

He looked like a Zamboni falling off a cliff. Justin Morneau hit a chopper high as the Foshay Tower, chugged down the line and, defying baseball teachings, executed a belly-flop on first base, rising to see the Twins' dugout cheering and mimicking him, every smile hiding a cringe.

"I'm going to give that dive a one out of 10, just so he doesn't have the courage to do it again," Michael Cuddyer said. "We don't need the MVP diving into first."We all need to know our physical limitations," catcher Mike Redmond said. "Sliding into first, for Morney, is one of his physical limitations."I don't want him to ever do that again," said Nick Punto, who can't help himself from sliding into first. "Because if he gets hurt, I'll get blamed."

While everyone was still joking about his baserunning, Morneau launched a two-run homer into the upper deck in the sixth inning. His chop and his bop led to all of the Twins' runs in their 4-2 victory over Toronto.

Morneau has become a willing recipient of teasing in the Twins clubhouse, but everyone made the same point Sunday: They don't want him to risk unnecessary injury ever again, because in the last year Morneau has made himself perhaps the most essential player on a team studded with essential players.

Morneau won the MVP award last year on the strength of four phenomenal months. What he has done so far this year is establish that there was nothing flukish about that performance, and that he could be on his way to an even more impressive season of power hitting in 2007.

In the past calendar year, Morneau is hitting .334 with 39 doubles, two triples, 40 homers and 135 RBI. He's on pace to challenge 50 home runs this year, and to become the first Twin to hit 40 since Harmon Killebrew.

No Twin has won consecutive MVP awards, and Morneau might be making himself the odds-on favorite to do that, too, considering Alex Rodriguez and the Yankees are in free fall and Magglio Ordonez hasn't had an MVP-caliber year since 2002.

At this time last year, Morneau was hitting .233 and the talk shows wanted him on a slow bus to Rochester. His early-season slump last year lasted more than two months. If he has demonstrated a new skill this year, it is the ability to recover quickly from a slump.

On May 6, a Sunday afternoon loss to Boston, Morneau spent the entire afternoon in the Twins' clubhouse, watching tapes with hitting coach Joe Vavra, leaving long after any of his teammates. Now he's on the kind of stretch that makes an MVP -- carrying his team when it needs him most.

His 2-for-3 day Sunday gave him a 10-game hitting streak and four homers in his past five games.

"I think it all stems from a selfless attitude," Cuddyer said. "You could see it last year when this happened. What happens is he puts no pressure on himself to get the job done, and when he relies on his teammates and doesn't pressure himself, that's when he gets the job done."

Remember the lament that the Twins' playoff teams lacked a big bat in the middle? Now they've got three.

Cuddyer is hitting .287 with seven homers and 36 RBI. Morneau is hitting .291 with 15 homers and 39 RBI. Torii Hunter is hitting .309 with 11 homers and 41 RBI.

When Joe Mauer returns, the recommendation here is to stack the top of the lineup with the team's best hitters, instead of ceding the No. 2 hole to a slap-and-run artist. Make it Luis Castillo, Mauer, Cuddyer, Morneau and Hunter -- two high on-base percentages in front of three run producers.

Kevin Slowey is likely to bolster the rotation. Johan Santana is approaching the part of the season when he gets hot. Mauer is returning to bat in front of the best middle-of-the-order run producers the Twins have had since their glory years.

This could be another season of superlative performances and contention, if the Twins can keep Morneau from busting his spleen on the first base bag.

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