Morneau manages to slip under radar

Morneau manages to slip under radar

Take a look at the offensive stats among American League first basemen, and near the top of almost every category is Justin Morneau's name.

Morneau's 64 RBIs rank first among AL first basemen. His 19 home runs are tied for third. Both his .309 batting average and 20 doubles rank fourth. And Morneau is the only AL first baseman who ranks in the top five among all of those categories.

Thanks to another stellar start to the season, Morneau is leading the Twins in nearly every offensive category, as well.

But with the tremendous season that catcher Joe Mauer has been putting together after missing all of April, the other member of the Minnesota M&M Boys has seen his impressive year go virtually unrecognized outside of his own clubhouse.

"There are a lot of people that know about the 1-2 punch here. They are recognized," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "But because of that .400 batting average, one guy has gotten most of it. Morny is kind of under the radar."

Sports Illustrated runs an annual survey of baseball executives and scouts that asks the question, "Which five players would you pick to start a franchise?" Mauer was ranked third in the poll, but surprisingly, Morneau, the AL MVP in 2006, did not receive a single vote.

"I think he's been getting overlooked for the last few years," Mauer said. "He's a great player. He's obviously one of the best players in the league. I don't think he's gotten the credit that he deserves. But I think that's fine by him. He's a guy that's low-key. He doesn't need to have all the attention on him, and that's a Minnesota-type guy."

Yet there is no doubt that the Twins understand Morneau's importance to their club.

"I know he's the one guy that when he's hitting and swinging and driving in runs, we win," Gardenhire said. "More so than when Joe is hitting .400, we win when Justin is driving in the runs and doing what he does. That's the way it's been here for awhile. It doesn't get overshadowed by us, but nationally, yes it does."


"Too many times, you take it for granted what he does and what he's done around here."
-- Ron Gardenhire

Of course, it's hard not to get overshadowed when your teammate is chasing the .400 mark, since it's something that hasn't been done in the Major Leagues in nearly 70 years. But while Morneau has not put up the phenomenal batting average like Mauer has this season, he's put together some amazing streaks, as well.

Mauer was recognized as the AL Player of the Month for May, when he batted .414 while hitting 11 home runs and tallying 32 RBIs. Morneau's numbers were nearly just as strong, as he hit .361 with nine homers and 29 RBIs.

Some of Morneau's teammates believe his April production -- five homers, 18 RBIs and a .318 batting average -- was perhaps even more important. That's because it came when Mauer was on the disabled list.

"When Joe was hurt in April, Morny was the man," catcher Mike Redmond said. "He took over and put us on his shoulders. If we didn't have Morny out there, who knows where we would be right now. He had an unbelievable month while Joe was hurt."

Morneau's power is perhaps one way to see his impact on the team. The Twins are 14-4 this season when he hits a home run.

The offensive numbers started to slow down a little for Morneau early in June. He went a stretch of 68 plate appearances without a home run from June 9-28. But over this past weekend, Morneau worked with hitting coach Joe Vavra to eliminate the stride from his swing in an effort to help get himself swinging at more pitches in the strike zone again.

The changes worked. Morneau homered in three straight games, and the Twins won two of those contests.

"The swing has felt a lot better," Morneau said. "It's a lot more comfortable at the plate now. I was kind of battling myself, and it kind of feels like it's supposed to now."

For Morneau, he's happy when his swing feels good, but for him, it's more about the impact that swing can have on his club. Because while he would love to be in St. Louis on July 14 for his third straight All-Star Game, he would gladly sacrifice individual stats for more team victories.

"I could have hoped for a better month of June," Morneau said. "But with personal numbers, if I'm hitting .250 and we're 10 games up, then it's a better first half than if I'm hitting .340 and 10 games back. At this point, the only thing I'm really concerned with is winning the division and making the playoffs. I've had personal success here, but that stuff doesn't compare to how it feels at the end of the year in the room dumping champagne on each other."

Whether or not Morneau will be spraying champagne with his teammates this season is still a ways off from being determined, but it appears likely that Morneau will be announced as an All-Star once again when the selections are unveiled on Sunday at noon CT on TBS on the 2009 All-Star Game Selection Show presented by Pepsi. But in his modest tone, Morneau isn't about to assume that another strong first half will garner him the recognition.

"You want to be there with the best players in the league for that game," Morneau said. "It's a fun thing to be a part of. You'd like to be recognized, but there are a lot of first basemen having good years. There are at least five guys you could throw in the game."

Still, it's hard to imagine that any of those first basemen might have a bigger impact on their own club than Morneau -- even if he is sometimes overlooked because of another sweet-swinging lefty.

"Too many times, you take it for granted what he does and what he's done around here," Gardenhire said. "Because he's been really consistent over last three, four years. But we all know when Morny is going good, and I think the guys out there will tell you the same thing. When he's going along, we are too. He's our igniter, and he's done that again for us this season."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.