Last season, outfielder Michael Cuddyer was the lone All-Star on the 99-loss Minnesota Twins. These days, every team has to have at least one representative at the mid-summer classic, and Cuddyer was the obvious choice.
One year later, it’s likely the guy Minnesota signed to replace Cuddyer will be heading to Kansas City for the 2012 All-Star Game.
Twins left fielder Josh Willingham leads Minnesota in almost every offensive category. He’s tied for the team lead in home runs with 14. His 46 RBI are 13 more than those of the next two Twins, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, who each have 33 RBI through Wednesday. Willingham’s 19 doubles are the most on the team. He’s drawn 33 walks, second-highest behind Mauer. His on-base percentage of .387 trails only Mauer’s .415, and Willingham’s slugging percentage of .549 is behind only Trevor Plouffe’s .560.
“Willingham’s been doing really well for us,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “He’s the one guy that walks up there and he’s swinging for it. He can juice a baseball.”
Just like Willingham so far this year, Cuddyer was easily Minnesota’s most consistent player offensively — and he was one of the few position players to avoid the disabled list during an injury-plagued 2011 season for the Twins. But a side-by-side look at the numbers shows that Willingham is actually ahead of the pace Cuddyer set offensively a year ago.
Through Wednesday’s game, Willingham has 14 home runs and 46 RBI and is batting .279/.387/.549 in 64 games. He’s also drawn 33 walks and struck out 66 times. Through the same number of games last season, Cuddyer had 10 homers, 28 RBI and was hitting .281/.345/.450.
Between Game 65 and last year’s All-Star Game in Arizona, Cuddyer added three more homers and 15 RBI in 20 games. The Twins have 18 more games before this year’s All-Star Game in Kansas City, which means Willingham should add to his already impressive offensive totals.
Willingham is even on pace to match or surpass career-highs he set last year during his only season with Oakland. In 2011, Willingham hit 29 homers and drove in 98 runs, both of which were personal bests for his eight seasons in the majors. If he can stay healthy, which he’s done to this point, Willingham should be right around similar totals in power and run production.
It hasn’t just been the amount of runs he’s driven in or the number of home runs he’s hit, necessarily, but the way in which Willingham has achieved those numbers that has boosted Minnesota’s offense. Frequently, Willingham’s homers or runs driven in have come in clutch situations. Twice in a span of nine games, Willingham provided walk-off hits for the Twins. He first did so with a three-run homer on May 29 against Oakland that gave Minnesota a 3-2 walk-off win. A week and a half later, Willingham’s ninth-inning base hit down the left field line against the Chicago Cubs once again lifted Minnesota to a walk-off victory.
Wednesday’s game in Pittsburgh was yet another example of how valuable Willingham has been for the Twins in late-game scenarios. After Pittsburgh scratched across a run in the bottom of the seventh inning to make it a 1-1 tie, Willingham responded in the top of the eighth with a solo homer off Pirates reliever Jason Grilli. That proved to be the game-winner as the Twins held on for a 2-1 win.
Given everything he’s done for the Twins this year, no one in Minnesota’s dugout was surprised when Willingham tagged another go-ahead homer.
“When you walk out in the clubhouse, you’re going to have about eight guys say, ‘I called that shot,’ ” Gardenhire said after Wednesday’s game “It’s probably the most obvious call in our clubhouse is Willingham’s going to hit a homer, and they’re all taking credit. You’ll see a lot of guys with ice on their right arm for patting themselves on the back. … I called that one, too. I’ll just say that.”
The solo homer was Willingham’s first home run in a week and just his second RBI in six games. Given how he began the first month of his Twins career — 25 hits, five homers and 19 RBI in 20 games in April — Willingham had hit a bit of a wall.
Still, he continues to be Minnesota’s most consistent bat in the lineup.
“I’ve been scuffling a little bit lately,” Willingham said after Wednesday’s win. “… It comes and goes. You just kind of have to keep dragging your bat up there, if you will, sometimes because you don’t feel good or you’re not getting many pitches to hit and when you are you’re missing them. … You just stay in the cage, get your work in and just stay the course is the best thing you can do.”
When Cuddyer was Minnesota’s lone All-Star representative last year, it snapped a streak of six consecutive seasons in which the Twins had more than one All-Star. The last time Minnesota had only one before Cuddyer in 2011 was 2004, when closer Joe Nathan was the pick.
The in-stadium voting for this year’s All-Star Game ends on Friday, and the American League and National League rosters will be announced July 1. When the game is played at Kauffman Stadium on July 10, there’s a pretty good bet that Willingham will be among the All-Stars, representing the Twins.