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In the shadow of Mighty Joe

class=img_thumbleft>In the end, Francisco Liriano did not win the fan balloting for the last roster spot on the AL All-Star Team--the White Sox cinched it with a can't-miss "Punch AJ" promotion on behalf of their widely loathed catcher--but at least baseball pundits near and far bitched about Liriano's exclusion. They pretty much ignored Justin Morneau's case for making the squad.

Morneau pulls into the All-Star break with 23 HR and 73 RBI--slightly more than the man players elected as a sub in front of him, the White Sox's Paul Konerko (21 HR, 67 RBI), who has had a season nearly identical to Morneau's in most respects. Though Morneau is playing a distant second fiddle to hometown hero Joe Mauer in the press, his breakout is nearly as stunning. Here's where Morneau ranks among his 1B peers and Major League hitters at large at the break:

HR: 7th in the AL; 14th (tied) in the majors; 5th among ML 1B

RBI: 4th in the AL; 8th in the majors; 3rd among ML 1B

SLG PCT (.587): 11th among all ML hitters; 4th among ML 1B

ON-BASE PLUS SLG PCT (.939): 21st among all ML hitters; 3rd among AL 1B; 7th among ML 1B

How's he made such a dramatic difference from 2005, when he hit 22 HR in 490 at-bats and posted a .742 OPS? The answer looks to be timing and confidence. Morneau hasn't really adjusted his approach at the plate--comparing this year to last, he still sports that upper-cut swing, still looks at about 3.5 pitches per at-bat, still strikes out once every 5-6 plate appearances and walks once in every 13. But those upper-cuts are connecting a lot more often: His groundball ratio has gone down dramatically, which is always good news for a power hitter, and his HR rate has nearly doubled (one longball every 22 AB in 2005, one every 12 AB this year).

Which is a long way of saying Morneau will play in a few All-Star games before he's through.

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