Morneau enjoying another big season

By Ian Parker Special to PA SportsTicker

If Justin Morneau’s selection as the American League Most Valuable Player was a surprise last year, here’s the real shocker: He could be even better this season.

The Minnesota Twins first baseman is showing that far from being a fluke, his 2006 season was merely a prelude for bigger things to come.

Last year, the native of New Westminster, British Columbia, hit 34 home runs - most of them in the final four months of the season after a slow start.

But this time around he has got it going much sooner, and after sending an A.J. Burnett pitch 433 feet into the upper deck of the Metrodome on Sunday after Morneau took his season tally to 15.

That puts him on pace for 50 this time around.

In recent days, Morneau has been presented with the James (Tip) O’Neill Award - given annually by the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame to the player who has excelled in individual achievement and team contribution while upholding baseball’s ideals.

He may have to get used to receiving awards.

Morneau, 26, has not simply been the most valuable player on this Twins team - with his good friend and housemate Joe Mauer on the disabled list, Morneau has been indispensable.

He accounted for all the Twins’ runs in Sunday’s 4-2 win over Toronto, a game Blue Jays manager John Gibbons branded “the Justin Morneau show”.

That show has been playing in ballparks throughout the American League for some time now, picking up pace in the last few days as Morneau is 9-for-21 with four home runs and 12 RBI in his last five games.

He has extended his hitting streak to 10 games. It’s a run that started, curiously, just after he suffered a broken nose fielding a throw from Nick Punto which took an awkward bounce against Detroit on May 12.

It’s not a common way to start a hot streak, but it seems to have worked.

“I guess it’s been a lot better since then,” Morneau said. “Maybe I should thank Punto for that - teaching me how to slide and breaking my nose.”

The slide Punto “taught” Morneau was on show on Sunday, and while the Twins were able to laugh later, they probably don’t want to see it again.

It was in the third inning with the Twins down a run that Morneau tried to beat out an infield chopper, but got his head-first dive all wrong as he collapsed in a heap.

“That was really a belly flop onto first base, not a dive,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “I don’t know what it was, but it was really ugly.”

Morneau was called safe, but the stunt itself was anything but.

“I’m going to give that dive a one out of 10, just so he doesn’t have the courage to do it again,” Twins outfielder Michael Cuddyer said. “We don’t need the MVP diving into first.”

The heart-in-mouth moment the entire Twins dugout will have experienced watching that flop was a reminder of how valuable Morneau has become to the team.

That is something the front office can expect to feel this winter too, with Morneau eligible for arbitration.

Perhaps as taken aback as everybody else by his second-half surge, the Twins chose not to offer Morneau the same $33 million four-year contract they gave to Mauer in the offseason.

That now looks like costing them big bucks next year as Morneau, who is being paid $4.5 million this season, continues to improve his bargaining position with every game.

But the contract talks can wait. For now, Morneau must focus on getting the Twins back into contention in the AL Central, where they have dropped back into fourth place, 7 1/2 games behind the streaking Cleveland Indians entering Monday.

If Morneau can lead a charge to the postseason, no one would be surprised to see him named MVP again.

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Updated Monday, May 28, 2007