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09/22/08 12:00 AM ET

Invaluable Morneau up for honor

Gardenhire says first baseman is Twins' most valuable player

Ask Twins manager Ron Gardenhire who has been the most valuable player during his team's 2008 chase for another American League Central title, and the answer is quite simple: Justin Morneau.

"He's the guy that makes us go," Gardenhire said. "When people pitch around him or when they make mistakes, he makes them pay. From his production in driving in runs, his batting average up there over .300, and even taking his walks, he's been our MVP on this team."

It's no surprise that Morneau is once again mentioned in that breath, as the Twins' offense has been largely carried by the first baseman over the past three seasons. That includes his 2006 AL MVP season, in which he batted .321 with 34 home runs and 130 RBIs. And even in a down year, personally -- and for the Twins' lineup as a whole -- in '07, Morneau still batted .271 with 31 homers and 111 RBIs.

But with the departure of Torii Hunter this past offseason and an injury-plagued season for Michael Cuddyer, Morneau has seen more pressure this season to carry the middle of the order. And in that role, he's delivered.

Morneau is currently leading the American League in RBIs and is two away from tying his career high of 130 in a season. He's batting over .300 for the second time in the last three seasons, and his 46 doubles ties the Twins' single-season record, set by Marty Cordova in 1996.

That level of production has Morneau currently being mentioned in discussions for a second potential AL MVP honor this season, and it's also earned him the Twins' nomination for the Major League Baseball Hank Aaron Award presented by Sharp.

This coveted honor is awarded annually to the best overall offensive performer in each league, with each club having a nominee. Fans can vote until Sunday, Oct. 12 to select the winner in each league. The winners will be announced prior to Game 4 of the World Series on Sunday, Oct. 26. Last year's winners were Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez and Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder. Originally introduced in 1999 to honor the 25th anniversary of Aaron breaking Babe Ruth's all-time home run record, the Hank Aaron Award was the first major award to be introduced in 30 years.

Although it would seem difficult to improve upon an MVP year, Morneau feels that he's seen quite a bit of growth as a hitter since 2006.

"My at-bats are probably more consistent," Morneau said. "I never wanted to be known as someone that is just a power hitter. I wanted to be a good hitter that hits for power. It's more important for me to be a complete hitter. A guy that can go out there in a situation where we need a single, I can make an adjustment in my swing and go out there and have a good at-bat."

As a result of some of those changes, Morneau's power numbers are down from years past. He has just 23 homers on the season and is doubtful to finish with 30-plus homers for the third straight season.

But while there is the one downside, Morneau has seen many more plusses -- including his clutch hitting. Heading into Friday's game against the Rays, Morneau was batting .362 with runners in scoring position and an even more impressive .429 with the bases loaded.

"What's impressive is, here is a guy who is now hitting .300-plus and can drive the ball out of the ballpark and is one of those clutch hitters," Gardenhire said. "He's really grown as a player and hitter. And if there is a game on the line, there is no hitter that I'd rather have up there at the plate than Morneau."

In terms of compliments to a hitter, there would seem to be no better one than that.

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