Morneau claims NL batting title with .319 average

First baseman clinches ninth title in Rockies' history, enters off bench in finale

Morneau claims NL batting title with .319 average

LOS ANGELES -- Rockies first baseman Justin Morneau began this year in a big-hitting lineup but ended it without his heavy-hitting friends. Still, he won his first National League batting title.

Morneau grounded out as a pinch-hitter in his only at-bat Sunday to finish with a .319 batting average. It is the ninth batting title in club history, by the seventh different player, and the Rockies' third in the last five years.

This season, Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki was leading the league at .340 but underwent season-ending left hip surgery in August. Michael Cuddyer entered Sunday's season finale against the Dodgers at .332, but he spent 99 games on the disabled list with various injuries and did not reach the necessary 502 plate appearances to qualify. Morneau missed time with neck stiffness but managed to play 135 games.

"The first half when we had everyone together, it was just going out there every day and trying to do your job, be a part of it," Morneau said. "But losing Tulo, losing 'CarGo' [former NL batting champ Carlos Gonzalez], and missing Cuddy for a lot of the time, missing Nolan [Arenado], it was tough. But you have a job to do."

Morneau clinched the batting title before entering the game Sunday. The Pirates' Josh Harrison, who was the closest challenger, went 0-for-4 in his team's loss to the Reds to drop to .315. The Pirates' Andrew McCutchen ended at .314.

Believing it important to help Morneau secure the crown in a season when the Rockies were out of the race early, manager Walt Weiss did not start Morneau on Saturday night with Harrison a point behind. Weiss repeated the decision Sunday.

There was a possibility that the issue would not be settled Sunday. Had the Pirates won and the Cardinals lost, they would have gone to a 163rd regular-season game to decide the NL Central title. But the loss left the Pirates as a Wild Card team and the Cards as division champion.

Morneau was one of the Majors' top stars in the American League with the Twins before he suffered a concussion in 2010. The aftermath of the concussion, along with neck and wrist injuries, cut his availability and effectiveness. But Morneau managed to play in 152 games last season with the Twins and the Pirates, batting .259. The performance led the Rockies to sign Morneau for two years at $12.5 million.

Within the game, it is generally appreciated when the manager of a team in the Rockies' situation helps a player achieve a career milestone. Some media and fans spoke against the Rockies' strategy, but Weiss was having none of the criticism.

"Anybody who has a problem with it, then their beef can be with me," Weiss said. "I'm going to try and make sure the guy wins the batting title. People can talk about backing into it and stuff, but that doesn't bother me. It takes six months to win a batting title, not one day."

In the AL, the Astros' Jose Altuve talked his way into the lineup rather than sit with a three-point lead over the Tigers' Victor Martinez. Altuve went 2-for-4 to improve his average a point, to .341, for the first batting crown in Astros history. The Astros tweeted before the game that Altuve had talked his way into the lineup.

Morneau was fine with Weiss' strategy.

"Last night it was, 'Let's see how it goes,'" Morneau said. "Today I came in ready to play, and he just said, 'We're going to sit you out and let it play as it is.'

"You work all year for it, so it doesn't come down to the last two games. There were games I sat during the year and time I spent on the DL. It's a little different if you play 160 and stop at the end. I trusted what the manager was telling me and it worked out."

In a pitching-dominant 2014 season, Morneau's is the lowest batting average for an NL champion since Terry Pendleton hit .319 for the Braves in 1991. Tony Gwynn won the NL title in 1988 at .313. The last time an AL batting champ had a lower average was 1972, when the Twins' Rod Carew hit .318.

Rockies batting champs

1993 -- Andres Galarraga, .370
1998 -- Larry Walker, .363
1999 -- Larry Walker, .379
2000 -- Todd Helton, .372
2001 -- Larry Walker, .350
2007 -- Matt Holliday, .340
2010 -- Carlos Gonzalez, .336
2013 -- Michael Cuddyer, .331
2014 -- Justin Morneau, .319

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb, and like his Facebook page, Thomas Harding and Friends at www.Rockies.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.