Cuddyer's defense adds clout to offense

His willingness to play second keeps more bats in a lineup hurting for hitting.

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Usual right fielder Michael Cuddyer said he has no problem filling in at second base for the Twins because “Every pitch, you are into it.”

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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Michael Cuddyer charged in on Jack Hannahan's grounder in the seventh inning Sunday, gloved the ball but couldn't get a throw off in time to retire the baserunner.

It looked like Cuddyer might have had a shot if he had barehanded the ball. His manager, though, wasn't complaining.

"That's fine," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I just don't want Cuddy to throw the ball around."

Gardenhire has decided that Cuddyer will be his second baseman until Tsuyoshi Nishioka returns from his broken left fibula, which could be three to four more weeks. Cuddyer won't have to make flashy, gravity-defying plays to please the manager, just make the plays he can and provide as much offense as possible.

"Actually, Cuddy is playing pretty good at second base," Gardenhire said. "He looks really comfortable out there. He enjoys second base. He actually has a lot of fun out there."

Cuddyer was busy Sunday, collecting five assists and one putout against Cleveland. He doesn't have Nishioka's range at second but might have a stronger arm. Listed at 221 pounds, Cuddyer has nearly 50 pounds on Nishioka and is not worried about getting taken out while turning a double play. Nishioka suffered his broken leg when Nick Swisher slid into him as he tried to turn a double play against the Yankees on April 7.

Cuddyer has said in the past that he was an option quarterback in high school behind a bad offensive line, so opponents can slide into him if they choose to.

Playing second, Cuddyer knows he's going to be in the middle of a lot of action, a nice change of pace from playing in the outfield.

"Every pitch, you are into it," he said. "You definitely feel ... I don't want to say you're out of the game in the outfield. But there's a lot more going on in the infield."

Once again, Gardenhire is looking to Cuddyer, who was drafted as a shortstop in 1997, for help.

Last season, Gardenhire needed Cuddyer to play third base so Jason Kubel could play in the field during interleague road games.

"When we got back, I told him, 'You can keep me there,' " Cuddyer said.

So Gardenhire kept Cuddyer at third -- he started 14 games there -- and Kubel in right field so Jim Thome could be the designated hitter. When Justin Mor-neau suffered a season-ending concussion July 7, Cuddyer moved to first and ended up playing 82 games there.

This year, Gardenhire has watched his team get off to an awful offensive start. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only four teams in the past 90 years went the first 19 games of a season scoring five or fewer runs each game. Despite signs of life over the weekend, the Twins enter Tuesday's series opener against Tampa Bay ranked 29th in runs scored, 30th in home runs, 27th in on-base percentage and 28th in on-base-plus-slugging percentage.

The offense appears to be coming around. Kubel is on an eight-game hitting streak. Thome is 5-for-10 over his past three games, and Cuddyer is batting .308 with two homers and three RBI over his past seven games. Morneau missed five games because of illness but had two hits in both games against Cleveland.

Delmon Young is expected to return Tuesday against the Rays. The offense won't be healthy for a few more weeks when Nishioka and Joe Mauer (bilateral leg weakness) come off the disabled list.

Gardenhire needs hitters now.

"I don't have enough big sticks to do too many things," Gardenhire said. "If I put [Cuddyer] back out in right and Kubel as DH, it takes Thome out of the lineup. Right now, we need all the bats."

Cuddyer has appeared in nine games in right field, seven games at first and six games at second -- moving from the infield to the outfield during two games. But he's willing to stay at second base to keep key hitters in the lineup.

"Keeping Thome, Kubel and everybody in the lineup is only going to help us," Cuddyer said, "and me being versatile and willing to go and do those other things is going to help us that much more."

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