FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — When Josh Willingham signed a three-year contract with Minnesota before last season, he barely gave a second thought to his new home ballpark.
All that talk about how Target Field can sap a hitter’s power? Willingham figured he’d wait and see.
“I knew I wasn’t going to come in here and hit a bunch of home runs to center field and right field, but felt like if I hit ’em to left, I could hit ’em out,” Willingham said. “I’ve played in Florida, it wasn’t a hitter’s ballpark. Washington wasn’t a hitter’s ballpark. Oakland certainly wasn’t a hitter’s ballpark, so I wasn’t really worried about the ballpark.”
Willingham turned out to be an ideal fit in his new surroundings, hitting 35 home runs in his first year with the Twins. Only Harmon Killebrew has hit more in a season since the franchise moved to Minnesota. Although the Twins lost 96 games, Willingham was a bright spot, setting career highs in homers, games (145), runs (85) and RBIs (110) — and at age 34, he looks like he has a few more productive seasons left in that right-handed swing.
Willingham has hit for power throughout his big league career, surpassing 20 homers four times in a six-year span immediately before arriving in Minnesota. He played for the Marlins, Nationals and Athletics before the Twins signed him to a $21 million deal in December 2011. Minnesota was looking for a right-handed hitter who could balance out a lineup that already included stars Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau digging in from the other side of the plate.
“We knew that his swing would fit well in our ballpark, and we were right,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “It fit well in a lot of ballparks last year, but I think mostly ours.”
Target Field opened in 2010, and in their first two seasons there, the Twins hit 98 homers at home and 147 on the road. The split changed last year, with Minnesota hitting 69 at home and 62 on the road.
Willingham was a big part of that, hitting 21 of his 35 home runs at Target Field.
When the Twins moved from the Metrodome, they left behind that big blue baggie that served as a right-field fence. But they kept a similar setup, including a 23-foot wall requiring clearance for home runs.
For Willingham, that’s less of an issue.
“We have that tough wall in right-center, in right field in general, and I think that’s kind of created a problem for some lefties, and even for right-handers to go opposite field,” third baseman Trevor Plouffe said. “He’s a pull hitter. He’s a guy that likes to go left field to left-center.”
Plouffe, who also hits right-handed, slugged 15 of his 24 homers at home last year. Mauer and Morneau, on the other hand, have hit only 16 of their 63 homers at Target Field since it opened.
So Willingham’s contributions are crucial — but joining the likes of Killebrew near the top of the team’s single-season home run list? That was hard to anticipate.
“I think it’s really cool, and something that obviously I’ll be proud of for a long time,” Willingham said. “I had one good year here, so hopefully I can put a couple more together. That’s the goal.”
After 99 losses in 2011 and 96 last season, the Twins hope to return to relevance before too long. Minnesota won back-to-back AL Central titles as recently as 2009-10. Mauer, the American League MVP in ’09, doesn’t turn 30 until April.
The biggest task the Twins face is rebuilding their pitching staff. If they’re successful — and they’re able to contend again in the next couple years — they may be glad they found Willingham at a time their offense needed a boost.
“He’s on a mission when he walks to the plate and has a pretty good plan of what he’s going to do,” Gardenhire said. “If you make a mistake he’s going to hit it real hard.”