Twins filling large void left by Morneau

Twins filling large void left by Morneau

MINNEAPOLIS -- Michael Cuddyer remembers the feeling all too well. The feeling he had during his 2008 season plagued with fluke injuries, when he had to sit on the bench and watch the Twins play on without him.

It's why Cuddyer has been empathetic for what his teammate Justin Morneau has been going through since the first baseman was sidelined on Sept. 14 by a stress fracture in the L5 vertebra in his lower back.

"It's tough," Cuddyer said. "I know what it's like to be a cheerleader, and it's frustrating and it stinks. But at the same time, if you are a good teammate, like Morny is, you are not going to bring the team down. You're going to be there doing what he's been doing -- and that's trying to lift our spirits from the bench."

When Morneau went down with the injury, many pundits declared the Twins' pennant chase all but done. At the time, the club sat 5 1/2 games back of the first-place Tigers, and it seemed like an almost impossible deficit to overcome without the 2006 AL MVP in the lineup.

Yet even without Morneau, the team managed to go 16-4 over its final 20 games to finish the 162-game regular season tied with the Tigers atop the American League Central. And now the Twins are preparing to host Detroit for a one-game tiebreaker at the Metrodome on Tuesday at 4:07 p.m. CT on TBS to crown a division champion.

So how did they get to this point without one of their biggest run-producing bats in the lineup?

At the time of Morneau's injury, manager Ron Gardenhire acknowledged that his team would need other players to step up in the absence of the slugger, and perhaps none have heeded the call as well as Cuddyer.

Since taking over for Morneau at first base, Cuddyer has batted .333 with eight home runs and 24 RBIs in 20 games at first base. He's provided a huge boost for the club by coming up with hits in critical situations, such as his go-ahead home run in the eighth inning of Saturday's 5-4 victory over the Royals.

"I've seen him hot before, and he's hot right now," Morneau said after Sunday's 13-4 win that ensured the Twins of the one-game tiebreaker. "He's been doing great. He's pretty much been carrying us. It's good to see. It makes the lineup that much deeper."

Stepping up offensively is one thing, but to do it while switching positions is another. After having played first base just 13 times this season before Morneau went down, the Twins looked to Cuddyer to shift permanently from right field to first base, and he's been providing a stabilizing force there as well.

"Defensively, he's playing so good out there," said second baseman Nick Punto. "It's not his natural position, but he's taking control out there, making all the plays, and offensively, it's awesome to watch. I couldn't be happier for the guy. In this clubhouse, Michael Cuddyer is probably the leader."

Based on the way Cuddyer's been producing since going to first base, Joe Mauer even joked that perhaps other hitters might be requesting a move.

"I think some of the guys have been asking if they can play first base," Mauer said. "A lot of homers and RBIs at first base."

But Cuddyer hasn't been the only boost of late, as many bats have stepped up in the lineup for the Twins. Delmon Young has heated up since becoming the everyday left fielder when Morneau went down. He's batting .363 with four homers and 17 RBIs in 20 games.

The same can be said for Jason Kubel, who has filled in Morneau's cleanup spot behind Mauer. Kubel was already having a strong season, and those numbers didn't falter in his new role. He is batting .279 with five homers and 20 RBI in the past 19 games, most of them in right field after Cuddyer moved to first base.

"It's fun to watch," Morneau said of Kubel. "If he keeps swinging like that and they're not pitching to Joe, we're going to go a long ways."

If the Twins want to go deep into the playoffs, they'll have to do so without Morneau, at least in the lineup that is.

While Morneau will continue to travel with the team and be a cheerleader on the bench, Cuddyer will be at first base for as long as the Twins continue playing. When asked Sunday if there was any possibility of him returning, Morneau's answer was clear.

"It's not an option," Morneau said.

That's not to say that Morneau hasn't thought about what it would be like to return. The first baseman has woken up numerous mornings and thought about trying to swing a bat, only to be reminded that it's not worth taking the risk for his career.

"When you're playing, you're in control," Morneau said. "You feel you can affect the outcome. You don't get nervous when you play. Sitting on the bench is tough. But the guys haven't needed [me], and that's good. They're playing well."

The Twins will try to continue their miraculous run without Morneau, as they rely on the other bats in the lineup when they face the Tigers on Tuesday. With Mauer and Denard Span continuing their impressive seasons and others stepping up in the clutch of late, the Twins have been able to put themselves in this position even in the absence of their primary cleanup hitter.

"Over the last three weeks or so, we really played good baseball," Gardenhire said. "It's been fun to watch -- a group of guys out there who were on a mission, and that was to get back in the race and try to catch the guys ahead of us. They were on a mission and it showed every day out there. A lot of big wins for us and a lot of big moments. It's been a heck of a run up to this point."

The Twins' hope now is that their run isn't quite yet done.

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