SPORTS

Justin Morneau turns to 3-time batting champ in heated NL race

09/25/2014 03:16 EDT | Updated 11/24/2014 05:59 EST
Justin Morneau awoke recently following a 1-for-3, two-run performance and realized he needed to seek help.

While that effort, in particular, wasn’t cause for concern, it kept the Colorado Rockies first baseman one percentage point behind Pittsburgh outfielder/infielder Josh Harrison with eight days remaining in the regular season as they battle for the National League batting title.

Morneau decided to call a friend, a good one in former Rockies outfielder and fellow Canadian, Larry Walker, who won the NL batting crown in 1998, 1999 and 2001.

He wanted to know how he should approach the game during the final week of the season with his team far removed from playoff contention. Walker told Morneau not to change, period.

“He wants to win this thing,” said Walker of Morneau in a phone interview. “Your number one objective is to go out there and win because you want to celebrate with your teammates [and win a division] but that’s out of the equation for him, so it’s a different mindset for him when taking the field.

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“I told him nothing’s different. The game hasn’t changed. You still go out there to try to win. You can’t lose that frame of mind.”

Walker, who had a on-base percentage of .400 in 17 major league seasons, also told Morneau to take some walks in games “because a 1-for-4 could turn into a 1-for-3 or 1-for-2, which is a big difference this time of year” when each at-bat is critical.

On Wednesday night, Morneau went 0-for-3 but managed to draw a walk to keep his .317 average from falling another percentage point. In Atlanta, Harrison’s average dipped to .316 with a 1-for-5 showing while teammate Andrew McCutchen collected two hits to raise his average to .313.

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Morneau is having to fight through a tough first season in Colorado as Wednesday’s 4-3 loss at San Diego dropped the Rockies’ record to 66-93 while Harrison and McCutchen are motivated by the fact Pittsburgh clinched its second consecutive playoff berth on Tuesday.

“It’s a lot more fun to take the field knowing that the games are important and more meaningful,” said Walker, who along with Tip O’Neill are the only Canadians to win a batting title. “You tend to [struggle with] the concentration part when you’re just going through the motions and there’s no reward at the end of the day.”

Still, Walker believes Morneau, the 2006 American League MVP, has been in the game long enough to experience a lot of situations and keep mentally strong.

Morneau, who could win the ninth batting title by a Rockie, was one of the most feared hitters in the major leagues from 2006 to 2009 before concussions and other injuries derailed his 2010 and 2011 campaigns. He struggled last season with Minnesota and Pittsburgh before signing a two-year, $12.5-million deal, with a third-year option, in Colorado.

“He’s a success story, he’s bounced back,” said Walker of Morneau, who has 16 home runs and 80 RBIs in 133 games this season. “I think what he’s gone through these last few years … it’s been a pretty good year. I’m glad I told him to go to Colorado.”

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