DETROIT -- Baseball scouts typically describe the Minnesota Twins as a fundamentally sound band of brothers who find a way to surmount obstacles and squeeze the most out of the talent on the roster.
"It seems like the worse things go for them, the better they play," a National League scout said last week.
Tigers manager Jim Leyland might buy the "Little Engine that Could" explanation -- except when he breaks down the Minnesota roster and sees much more than a scrappy group of gamers who hit cutoff men, execute flawless rundowns and run the bases with precision.
"People get all hung up on 'small market,' and 'They've done a great job,'" Leyland said. "That's all true. But they've done a great job because they have really good players. People underestimate the players on the Minnesota Twins, and that's totally unfair."
"I think they're two of the 10 best players in baseball myself," Leyland said Monday.
As the Twins have quietly crept back into the American League Central race -- winning 13 of 19 games to carve the Tigers' division lead from seven games to two -- Mauer has strengthened his case for the AL MVP award. But Minnesota's resurgence is also a tribute to the consistent production of Jason Kubel, the speed and energy of Denard Span, and the adaptability of Michael Cuddyer, who has been a godsend as the emergency replacement for Morneau at first base.
Cuddyer, 30, topped the 30-homer mark this season for the first time in his career and ranks 14th in the AL with a .521 slugging percentage. But his quick adjustment around the bag has been almost as impressive as his eight home runs and 24 RBIs this month.
After playing a total of 46 games at first base in his first eight major league seasons, Cuddyer has made a smooth transition to the position since Morneau went down with a season-ending back injury two weeks ago.
"What makes me step back is watching how well he plays first base," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I'm not just talking about catching the ball. I'm talking about relays, cutoffs and bunt plays and being in the right places. That tells you a little bit about how smart a player he is and his knowledge of the game."
Cuddyer, the ninth overall pick in the 1997 MLB draft, comes from the same coastal region of Virginia that produced David Wright, Ryan Zimmerman, Mark Reynolds, and B.J. and Justin Upton. He broke into professional ball as a shortstop, but has since played every position on the field except pitcher and catcher.
"In this organization, you tend to be a student of the game," Cuddyer said. "If you have the mentality that, 'I'm not a third baseman or a first baseman or an outfielder -- I'm a baseball player,' you can get put into a situation you're not used to and still handle it. You're not going to freak out.
"When I went over to first and knew I had to play every day, I just told myself, 'Be an athlete and be a baseball player. Fortunately, thus far, it's worked out."
The Twins, winners of 11 of their past 13 games, need to win three of four games against the Tigers at Comerica Park this week to forge a tie entering the final weekend of the regular season. Minnesota concludes the season at home against Kansas City, and Detroit finishes up at home against the White Sox.
Fans in search of pennant-race baseball showed up Monday night and watched the Tigers pay tribute to Sparky Anderson, Kirk Gibson, Alan Trammell and Detroit's 1984 World Series champions. Then they packed up and went home early when the game was called because of rain.
The Twins, although thin on starting pitching and facing a Detroit team that's 48-26 at home, are flush with optimism from their improbable late-season run. They've pulled together through the loss of Morneau, starter Kevin Slowey and third baseman Joe Crede to injuries, and they've become poster boys for the importance of bonding under duress.
"Don't get me wrong -- I don't want our stars to go down every year," Cuddyer said. "But at the same time, we started rooting for each other. We almost feel like we're the underdogs, and we started pulling for each other more.
"There's something to be said for feeling that, no matter what, the guy in front of you or behind you is going to pick you up. That alleviates a lot of the pressure you put on yourself, and you start playing better."