It has finally happened. It's been 19 years in the making, but the Twins now have another guy with 30 home runs in a major league season: Justin Morneau. Facing a 3-2 deficit after a Brandon Inge two-run blast in the seventh against Johan Santana, Morneau came up with Joe Mauer on base (who had walked against a guy with one walk all year in Jamie Walker -- yes quite ironic) and one out with flame-throwing Joel Zumaya on the mound.
Zumaya had just struck out Michael Cuddyer on three astounding pitches. The first was a fastball clocked at 101 mph for a strike. The second was a nasty breaking ball at 82 over the outside corner. By the time the next 101 mph strike charged against the strikezone, Cuddyer looked absolutely helpless. So did the Twins. The Inge homer seemed to have really put a hole in their sails.
Up came Morneau, who was 0-for-3 on the night and was coming off a bad at-bat, having grounded into a double play to end a bases-loaded threat in the sixth inning. Morneau immediately redeemed himself. Zumaya threw another 101 mph fastball, this was out over the plate and around the shoulders. Morneau swung hard, got around on it, and blasted it high into the air and out it went. Gone was the Detroit lead. Gone was the pressure of hitting the 30th home run. In one swing, Morneau broke that curse over the Twins, gave Santana a win, pushed the Twins to a 1/2 game lead in the Wild Card standings, became the fourth Canadian (Larry Walker, Matt Stairs, and Jason Bay are the others) to hit 30 home runs, and also became the first Twin since Gary Gaetti in 1987 to collect 30 home runs and 100 RBI.
Simply put, it was a spectacularly exciting and uplifting moment for both the Twins and Morneau. To look and see that the first baseman has a .322/.376/.604 line with 30 HR and 101 RBI is amazing. Knowing that all this is for real is even better. Morneau isn't just an MVP candidate; right now he is the AL MVP. Why? Morneau has more game-winning hits (16) now than Big Papi, who has 15. Unlike Ortiz, Manny, Thome, Dye, Jeter, Giambi and other MVP candidates, Morneau doesn't have a slugger hitting behind him or a Jeter in front of him. Michael Cuddyer's done a fine job, but he isn't that great. And the Twins have four hitters in their lineup (Bartlett, Tyner, Castillo, Punto) with a combined four home runs this year.
Morneau is the Twins' only legitimate power threat and his presence and offensive numbers this year have powered the Twins to being a contender. Yes, Mauer gets on base, has an amazing average, and is a great catcher, but the man who hits the 3-run blast and drives in Mauer wins more games. (Although, according to win shares at The Hardball Times, Mauer has two more win shares due to his defense)
Simply put, a guy with this power, average, and clutch ability cannot be overlooked. Right now, it has to be Morneau for me. (If anyone's curious, it's Albert Pujols again in the NL, with Carlos Beltran right behind him.) However, besides gushing over Morneau's incredible season, the Twins did a get a big contribution from Santana tonight as well.
Yes, he gave up the two-run dinger, but home runs are really Santana's only weakness. He was much more dominant last night against a very good lineup for the Tigers. He struck out 10 Tigers, walked two, and gave up only four hits. The whole pitching staff did great, striking out 13 total, while giving up only the four hits. Joe Nathan came in the game to shut the door in the ninth, promptly striking out Magglio Ordonez on a nasty slider.
After the bad news this week, the last two starts have been a complete joy to watch. The idea that Radke and Santana could lead this staff and team to the playoffs didn't seem too likely after the news on Francisco Liriano, but after two great starts against the Tigers, things are looking up. Boston and Chicago are sliding and the Twins have the one player those other guys don't still: Mr. Morneau.