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Twins' Morneau making strides at the plate

Don't look now, but Twins veteran Justin Morneau appears a bit like the slugger of old.

MINNEAPOLIS — Justin Morneau wouldn't go so far as to say this is the healthiest he's felt in a long time, instead saying he's "healthy enough" to play every day for the Minnesota Twins.

After Monday's four-hit performance against Baltimore that extended his season-high hitting streak to 14 games, it appears Morneau is indeed healthy again after missing time earlier in the year with a wrist injury. The Twins first baseman played in just 69 games a year ago due to numerous ailments. He matched that total Monday, as it marked his 69th game of the 2012 season.

Because he's been able to stay in the lineup, Morneau said he's increased his off-the-field workload to make up for the number of at-bats he's missed over the past few seasons. He said he didn't start swinging until two weeks before spring training this year, but has now worked back up to a more rigorous workload.

"I've increased the last couple weeks," Morneau said after Minnesota's 19-7 rout of the Orioles. "I've actually started doing my program that I usually do in the offseason that I just haven't been able to do. I've been starting to feel better, just doing the stuff that gets me back to where I want to be mechanically. I've been doing more than I normally would do at this point in the season, but it's something that has to be done."

It's paid off, as is evident by his current 14-game hitting streak that's raised his average to .257. During the streak — which dates back to June 27 — Morneau is batting .356 (21-for-59) with six RBI, five doubles and a home run. He's now just two games shy of his career-high hitting streak of 16 games, which spanned from June 22-July 9 of the 2006 season.

Monday was also the first time since July 4, 2009 that Morneau had four hits in a game.

"It's been a while since I've had one of those, I know that," Morneau said of his four-hit night. "Hopefully it's just the start of the second half starting to turn around for everybody. I've been putting in the work, and it's nice to see those results. Obviously those nights are few and far between, but that's what you hope for is a hitter is a good day like that."

Morneau's first hit of the night, a double to left field, was part of a seven-run first inning for the Twins. Morneau later came home to score on an error by Orioles first baseman Mark Reynolds.

After a flyout to center field in the second inning, Morneau singled to right in the fourth. His third hit came on his second double of the night as he found the gap in right-center to score Josh Willingham from first base. Morneau eventually scored on Ryan Doumit's sacrifice fly.

Morneau's last hit of the evening was a grounder to third base that Baltimore third baseman Wilson Betemit couldn't handle. Teams have been playing a heavy shift on Morneau with the expectation that the left-handed Morneau will pull the ball to the right side of the infield. But he was able to beat that shift twice Monday.

"They're playing the shift on him and he's slapping the ball around, taking advantage of how they're trying to pitch him," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "It's fun to see him get out there, running around the bases."

Added Morneau: "When I'm going good, I'm using the whole field. It seems like there's more holes on that side of the field, especially when the shortstop's playing behind second."

After beginning the season primarily as a designated hitter, Morneau has consistently been slotted as the Twins' first baseman. During the hitting streak, 12 of his 14 games were at first base, with just two days as the designated hitter.

It's a positive sign for Morneau and the Twins as the former American League MVP appears to be staying healthy.

"I'm going to keep working hard and keep trying to get back to being the hitter that I want to be and expect myself to be," Morneau said. "Hopefully this is just a step along the way."

Adding to the positives for Morneau over the past few weeks was Sunday's pregame festivities, as he caught the ceremonial first pitch from new Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise. Morneau is an avid Vancouver Canucks fan, but said he's just happy to see the excitement that the signing of Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter has brought to Minnesota.

"I'm happy. I watch a lot of Wild games," said Morneau, who played hockey as a kid growing up in Canada. "It's good for him. It's good to see both those guys come in and see everyone excited about hockey like they should be around here."

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