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Play vs. M's adds rare flash to Morneau's defense

Play vs. M's adds rare flash to Morneau's defense

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Play vs. M's adds rare flash to Morneau's defense

SEATTLE -- True, Justin Morneau's bat has not been winning as many games lately as the first baseman and his Twins are used to.

Yet his steady, at times spectacular, glove still works.

The 2006 American League Most Valuable Player made a wowing play wide of first base in the 11th inning Friday night to help keep Minnesota's game going long enough for Chris Colabello to beat Seattle with a two-run home run in the top of the 13th.

Morneau, who was a goalie growing up in hockey-mad Vancouver, British Columbia, was holding a runner on with no outs late Friday when Kyle Seager hit a hard hopper that was headed into right field. Morneau moved off the bag to his right and dropped to his knees, as if an NHL netminder. He then threw from those knees to shortstop Pedro Florimon for the forceout at second. Morneau scrambled to his feet, sprinted back to first base and received Florimon's return throw just before Seager arrived, completing Minnesota's 120th double play -- the team had a Major League-leading 122 after Saturday's game.

Instead of Seattle perhaps having runners at first and third with no outs and a prime chance to win Friday's game, it had none on and two outs. Brian Duensing struck out Dustin Ackley to end the 11th. Then Colabello hit his first career home run in the 13th.

"Sometimes the hockey goalie comes out in him," manager Ron Gardenhire said of Morneau with a smile Saturday morning, hours before Morneau had a double and his eighth home run in Minnesota's 4-0 win. "He's underrated defensively. He's a big guy, a real physical guy, but he moves real well. Not too much gets by him."

Playing in front of his parents and about two dozen friends and family members again Saturday, Morneau was guarding the line with two outs and two Mariners on in the eighth inning. Raul Ibanez hit a hard shot just inside the line behind first. Morneau smoothly glided over and snared the ball before it got away from a potential two-run double, then jogged over to the bag to keep the shutout intact.

"When I was a younger player, I might have taken at-bats with me out into the field," Morneau said, "but now I realize how much I can still have an impact on the game defensively. Defense is hugely important with our team, and it's important to me."

He says when he came up a decade ago, defense was what people saw as his liability.

"I've tried to prove people wrong," he said.

Yet Morneau's defense gets overlooked, in particular by Gold Glove Award voters and those who are focused entirely on his offensive production. That is the standard by which former MVPs are held.

Morneau entered Saturday's third game of the Seattle series batting .264 with seven home runs. The average would be his lowest over a full season since 2005. He is on pace for his fewest home runs over a full season since his Major League debut with the Twins in 2003. He had only one homer in his last 17 games -- until he clobbered a fastball into the right-center field bleachers for a solo shot in the seventh inning Saturday to give Minnesota a 4-0 lead.

Plus, Morneau's latest glove trick came at almost 1 a.m. Saturday back in the Twin Cities, so it was likely overlooked.

Just like his defense for much of his career.

Morneau's fielding percentage this season entering Saturday led the A.L. at .998. He was second in double plays turned by a first baseman (95), a category in which he led the league in 2008. For the second consecutive season he is leading the A.L. in range factor per game as a first baseman, an advanced defensive metric.

Yet he has never won a Gold Glove Award.

Gardenhire believes part of the reason is that Morneau is so quick defensively. The manager notes the first baseman often does not make the lunging, leaping stops many others do while getting on nightly highlight reels.

"We've had players in the past that the ball is there," the manager said, pointing to a spot maybe a foot away, "and they dive -- when they didn't need to make the diving play. Morneau's going to get in front of those balls. He's good at doing the daily grind. He's got an iron mill worker's mentality. We like that a lot about him.

"If you ask me is he a Gold Glover, I'd say, 'absolutely.'"

Gregg Bell is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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