"Justin Morneau," he said.
The Twins' 25-year-old first baseman isn't just making a name for himself in his fourth big league season and true breakout year. He also is emerging as perhaps the top MVP candidate, since there are flaws surrounding his chief competition: Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz (doesn't play the field, no playoffs); New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter (lack of power, star-studded lineup); Chicago White Sox outfielder Jermaine Dye (no playoffs); Oakland Athletics DH Frank Thomas (doesn't play the field).
"Without Morny doing what he has done, once he got swinging the bat and driving in runs in the middle of our lineup, we'd be hard-pressed to sit here and say where we'd be right now," Gardenhire said.
Yes, Gardenhire said, other Twins have helped. Johan Santana is the slam-dunk AL Cy Young Award winner and will be considered by MVP voters. But he is a pitcher, and as Gardenhire says, they have their own award.
Then there's Joe Mauer, who is about to become the first catcher to win the AL batting crown. Besides the average near .350, he has been splendid defensively. But MVP is traditionally a power award, and Mauer has just 13 homers and 84 RBIs. In contrast, Morneau is hitting a lusty .321 with 34 homers and 129 RBIs.
He trails Ortiz in both power categories and on-base percentage, but Boston's season ends today, and Minnesota is still going. That, Gardenhire says, should be the deciding factor leading Morneau to his first MVP award.
"The numbers [Ortiz] is putting up are amazing," Gardenhire said. "But an MVP is a guy that does something very special for your ballclub and gets you in a position where you have an opportunity to move on in the playoffs. And [Morneau] has done that for our ballclub."
Long time coming
When Oakland clinched a playoff berth, no one was happier than veterans Jason Kendall and Mark Kotsay. The duo was in the top seven of a dubious category: most games by an active player without getting to the postseason.
Kendall was third with more than 1,500 games played, Kotsay seventh with almost 1,300. The leader was the New York Mets' Carlos Delgado, who will make his first playoff appearance after more than 1,700 games.
"If you're young and you go early in your career, you probably expect it all the time," Kotsay said. "I don't. Kendall doesn't. This is a great feeling to finally know we're going."
V. Wells a priority
Toronto outfielder Vernon Wells is the Blue Jays' top priority this offseason. He can be a free agent after 2007 and, because he lives in Arlington, Texas, is considered a potential Ranger.
But he says he'd like to stay, and club president Paul Godfrey said: "We've got to get Vernon's name on a contract."
If Texas' Mark Teixeira's second-half power numbers were extrapolated over a full 162 games, he'd have more than 50 homers. He hit No. 33 yesterday. ... The Cleveland Indians' Grady Sizemore had scored 41 runs in the first inning through Friday's games.