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Twins trio of Stars are fixtures of the franchise

MINNEAPOLIS -- So many players make it to the All-Star Game these days, the selection of Minnesota's Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan to this year's American League team might not resonate as it should.

MINNEAPOLIS -- So many players make it to the All-Star Game these days, the selection of Minnesota's Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan to this year's American League team might not resonate as it should.

What we are seeing in Mauer, Morneau and Nathan is not just three All-Stars, but three players who are among the best in Twins history, three players who do not sneak into the All-Star Game through the service entrance but have places of honor held for them.

"They are so deserving," said Twins Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew from his home in Phoenix this past weekend. "I suspected they would all make it. That was great. I'm going to be in St. Louis, and I look forward to seeing them there."

Mauer is already the best catcher in Twins history. Nathan ranks second to Rick Aguilera in career saves as a Twin, but holds the team record with five consecutive 30-save seasons -- and counting -- and should pass Aguilera's mark next summer.

Morneau projects to be the second-best power-hitting first baseman in franchise history, behind Killebrew. By the end of his career, presuming good health, Morneau figures to become the most well-rounded first baseman in team history.

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He won't catch The Killer in home runs, but he is an excellent fielder and should hit for a much higher career average than Killebrew's .256, and should easily surpass the power totals of Kent Hrbek, who was never the run-producer Morneau has been for the past four seasons.

Morneau hit his 21st homer of the season Sunday during the Twins' 6-2 victory over Detroit, putting him on pace to become the second player in team history to reach 40 in a season. "I'm pulling for him," Killebrew said. "He should do that, a lot. I hope this will be the first of many seasons he does that."

Killebrew gave Morneau advice on hitting home runs this spring.

"I don't know if he took it or not," Killebrew said. "All I wanted to do was help Justin if I could. As far as Joe Mauer, well, I don't say much to Joe. What are you going to say? 'Keep swinging, Joe.'

"Joe Nathan, yes, I would agree he's the best closer I've seen on our ballclub, and we've had some pretty good ones."

Sunday, Mauer went 1-for-3 with a walk, Nathan got the day off, and Morneau went 2-for-4 with a homer, made a spectacular diving play in the ninth and combined with Mauer on the kind of play the Twins have come to expect.

The Twins led 6-0. Mauer had just walked. Morneau hit a routine double-play grounder. Modern baseball mores allow sore-legged catchers and superstar sluggers to save their strength and concede the double play, but Mauer went in hard with a takeout slide and Morneau sprinted down the line and beat the relay.

Somewhere, Kirby Puckett, who ran out every ground ball in his career, was smiling.

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"I think that's been the case around here for as long as I've been here," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "The Kirby Pucketts and the Kent Hrbeks are quality people in the clubhouse, solid baseball players, solid in the community, and have a respect for the game. That rubs off. That makes it easy for the manager when you have guys out there who have been through the growing part of it, and now they know what to expect, and they can handle all of that stuff.

"If they see a guy not running out a grounder, they look at me and say, 'I got him.' "

Gardenhire said Morneau will yell at any player who doesn't run out a ground ball.

"He's the first one to say something about a guy on another team, and on our team," Gardenhire said. "Well, he's the second on our team, right behind me. Joe Mauer isn't afraid to say something. Joe is calmer, but he'll go talk to them. That's really good, when it comes from a player.

"And Nathan does it with his bullpen. He's very big on his bullpen doing things together, as a unit, and being proud of it. That's huge, to have a closer that takes charge like that."

Mauer and Morneau qualified for their third All-Star team, and Nathan his fourth. The Twins haven't had three players with three or more All-Star berths as a Twin chosen for an All-Star game in the same year since 1992, when Chuck Knoblauch, Aguilera and Puckett made it.

Before that, Killebrew, Rod Carew and Tony Oliva made it together for five consecutive years, from 1967-71. "I remember that!" Killebrew joked.

Morneau, at 28, promises to remember this, too.

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"It's pretty cool to be able to go with these two guys," Morneau said. "These are the kinds of guys you want to go to All-Star games with, you want to say are your teammates."

Souhan writes for the Star Tribune (Minneapolis).

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