On a day of nerves and anticipation in Minnesota Twins camp, outfielder Jason Kubel took note of Justin Morneau’s pregame meal. He considered it a good sign.
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“Mac and cheese,” Kubel said with a smile. “I know he’s ready to go.”
Kubel couldn’t recall Morneau eating his customary pregame pasta since last July – when a concussion wiped out the remainder of his 2010 season and clouded his baseball future.
It might be a while before baseball-as-usual, but Friday afternoon was a good start. In his first major-league action since sustaining the concussion, Morneau played four innings at first base and took two at-bats against Boston’s Jon Lester, one of the most feared left-handers in baseball.
Morneau struck out in his first at-bat before hanging with Lester for eight pitches in his second trip to the plate, culminating in a well-hit fly ball to left field. Carl Crawford muffed it for an error. A few moments later, Morneau left for a pinch runner.
Most importantly, there was no immediate recurrence of the post-concussion symptoms that plagued the former American League MVP for months.
“You learn patience,” he said afterward. “Everyone’s different. You see guys miss a week with a concussion. You see guys miss a year with a concussion. You never know.
“When I got hurt, I didn’t think I was going to be out that long. I didn’t think it was going to be that bad. Now, hopefully, it’s behind us. This is the first big step toward Opening Day and being in that lineup for the regular season.”
Lester wasn’t an easy first assignment for the left-swinging Morneau, since he’s more cognizant of high-and-tight pitches than the average major league hitter – at least for the time being. But Morneau, the four-time All-Star, was actually glad to face Lester.
“Actually, I’d prefer to see as many lefties as I can, to get comfortable,” Morneau said. “The more at-bats you can get off a guy like that, the more you can learn. He’s as good as there is as far as lefties go – as far as pitchers go. He’s a tough at-bat. You’re focusing on trying to figure him out. It gets your mind off the rest of your stuff.”
Morneau, who turns 30 in May, is readjusting to a profession that he dominated not long ago. He had an otherworldly 1.055 OPS at the time of his injury and was on pace to finish with better offensive numbers than during his MVP season.
After several aborted attempts to return, Morneau had no choice but to sit out the entire second half and postseason.
“The best way to describe it is being on an island,” he said, “and nobody can really know what you’re going through every day.”
The Twins were swept out of the playoffs by the New York Yankees in each of the past two years. Morneau, who suffered a stress fracture in his back near the end of the 2009 season, didn’t play in either series.
When asked if he ever stopped to think how different things would have been with Morneau in the lineup, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said, “How many games we play without him last year? About 80? Probably about 8o times.”
For Morneau, each game hereafter will provide clues in answering the seminal question: Can he be the player he was? Morneau believes the answer is yes. He added that conversations with fellow athletes who suffered concussions – including former big leaguer Corey Koskie and current NHL defenseman Willie Mitchell – has made a “huge difference” in his recovery.
Morneau believes he sustained one concussion while playing hockey as a boy in British Columbia and was hit in the head by a pitch early in the 2005 season.
“There were still times, later in the (’05) year, when I’d step in on a lefty and a thought would cross my mind,” he said. “I would have to step out and say, ‘Hey, everything’s all right.’ From time to time, it’s going to come back in my mind. There’s going to be thoughts, but hopefully fatigue and all the (other symptoms) will be gone.
“We have data from before, as far as reaction time and the concussion tests we do. The reaction times and everything is back to normal. Now it’s just going to take the reps to feel that the data is right and I can be the same player. I don’t feel like the doctors and the team would put me out there if they didn’t feel like I could be the same player.”
Morneau plans to take Saturday off before returning to the lineup on Sunday. No one can be certain yet if he will be in the lineup on Opening Day, and the Twins have remained conservative in their plans for him.
Ironically, Morneau already has seen more game action than two key Minnesota regulars: Joe Mauer (left knee) and Michael Cuddyer (plantar wart removal) have yet to appear in Grapefruit League games. Delmon Young (turf toe) made his spring debut along with Morneau on Friday.
The Twins are far from a finished product, three weeks from the season opener. Yet the mere sight of Morneau at the plate was enough to draw a huge, prolonged ovation from the crowd at Hammond Stadium – for which the slugger was deeply appreciative.
“A nice moment,” Gardenhire said. “He missed a lot of baseball. No one can tell you, more than him, how hard that is. It’s fun to see him back out on a baseball field. He’s a great player. We all know that. He’s gone through an awful lot. I think he’ll appreciate the game a lot more now – not that he didn’t already. I think Mornie’s pretty excited.”