Twins Friday: Gardenhire backing Hicks

MINNEAPOLIS — After an impressive spring, Aaron Hicks’ first eight games as a major leaguer have presented a tough learning curve. The 23-year-old center fielder had just two hits in 35 at-bats while striking out 16 times prior to Friday’s game against the New York Mets.

But despite his struggles at the plate, Hicks was still in the leadoff spot for the Twins on Friday as they opened a three-game series with the Mets at Target Field. Manager Ron Gardenhire knows the young outfielder may be pressing, but he’ll give Hicks the chance to work everything out at the plate.

“We want to do what’s best for our baseball team, and that would be to take off and get some hits and run with it. But we want to protect him, too,” manager Ron Gardenhire said before Friday’s game. “It’s only 30-plus at-bats against some really good teams. The weather’s not been conducive for anything. We’re going to give him a chance here to right himself. He’s a good player, had a heck of a spring. Hopefully he’ll come up with a couple hits, get some confidence going and take off from there.”

Hicks won the starting center field job this spring and put on an impressive display offensively in Fort Myers. He hit four home runs — including three in one game — and had a team-high 18 RBI in spring training. That same success hasn’t carried with him to Minnesota after bypassing Triple-A altogether.

“In this game, you fail so much. Three out of 10, you’re a Hall of Famer,” Hicks said Friday. “I’m going up to the plate ready to do what I can to get a hit. They’re just not falling. I’ve still got to go out there every day and do what I can to help the team win on defense.”

Gardenhire was asked if he had considered moving Hicks out of the leadoff spot to take some pressure off the rookie, but the manager said he wants to keep Hicks at the top of the order for now. On top of that, the Twins don’t have many options in the leadoff spot.

Patience was a big part of Hicks’ game in the minor leagues. He had an on-base percentage of .384 last year after drawing 79 walks. This season, though, his patience has almost worked against him as he’s found himself in plenty of 0-1 and 0-2 counts.

“That’s the kind of hitter I am. I typically take a lot of pitches and let the guys behind me see what the pitcher has,” Hicks said. “First (at-bat) is typically when I like to take a lot of pitches, see if the guy has a fastball, curveball, changeup. When I’m done with that at-bat, whether I get a hit or not, tell the guys behind me.”

Hicks’ 16 strikeouts are tied for second-most in the majors and are the most among all American League batters. He did strike out a career-high 116 times at Double-A New Britain last year, but he also batted .286 with 13 homers and 61 RBI.

Minnesota is hopeful Hicks can turn things around, and the Twins are still willing to be patient with the rookie center fielder.

“He’s started off slow in the minor leagues. We’ve looked at his career. He’s had some times when he’s struggled in the minor leagues,” Gardenhire said. “We’re just hoping he can find a couple good swings. Sometimes all it takes is a couple hits in a row and the next thing you know, you forget about everything and you take off from there.”

Diamond rejoins teammates: Twins left-hander Scott Diamond was back in Minnesota’s clubhouse Friday, one day before he’s scheduled to make his 2013 debut following offseason elbow surgery. The 26-year-old underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left elbow in December, which kept him on the disabled list to begin the season.

After a rehab stint in Fort Myers, Diamond is set to take the mound Saturday against the Mets. Minnesota’s best starting pitcher from a year ago is hoping to pick up where he left off at the end of 2012.

“I’m going to try to repeat last year,” Diamond said Friday. “Whether or not the numbers look the same, I know there’s a lot of positives I focused on last year and mental triggers that as they continue on through this year, I hope to try to repeat. It is a new year. It’s like a fresh start. I’m just excited to be back.”

Diamond was 12-9 with a 3.54 ERA in 27 starts with the Twins last year and also pitched 173 innings, easily the most of any starter in Minnesota’s struggling rotation. The Twins added several pieces to the rotation this offseason to join Diamond.

Now, after missing the first two weeks of the season, Diamond will finally join his new teammates. He said he’d be able to reach the 100-pitch mark if need be despite throwing just 82 pitches in his last rehab outing. Gardenhire said the Twins will keep an eye on Diamond’s pitch count, especially with the chilly conditions at Target Field this weekend.

“It just depends on how he’s going, if he labors through the course of it and how the game’s going,” Gardenhire said. “You never know how a guy’s going to be feeling. He’s been throwing in about 90-degree temperature. That always makes it a little easier. We’ll definitely watch and pay attention and we won’t push the limit, let’s put it that way.”

Hernandez injures calf: Twins reliever Pedro Hernandez left Friday’s game in the sixth inning with a left calf strain and is listed as day-to-day.

Hernandez, who turned 24 on Friday, pitched 4 1/3 innings in relief after starter Vance Worley lasted just one inning plus four batters in the second against the Mets. Hernandez entered with the bases loaded and nobody out in the second and surrendered a grand slam to John Buck. After that, though, Hernandez settled down and at one point retired eight straight batters.

But he left in the middle of facing Ike Davis in the sixth inning. With a 2-2 count, Hernandez was visited on the mound by a trainer and Gardenhire. The left-hander exited the game with a calf injury and gave way to right-hander Ryan Pressly.

“I don’t think it’s bad,” Gardenhire said of Hernandez’s injury. “We’ll wait ‘til morning. We’ll see how everything is.”

The Twins will need to make a roster move prior to Saturday’s game in order to activate left-hander Scott Diamond from the disabled list and Hernandez is one possible option; he was recalled from Triple-a Rochester on April 5 when Cole De Vries went on the 15-day DL. Hernandez made a spot start on April 7 against Baltimore and allowed three runs in five innings. Friday marked the first relief appearance in his young minor league career, and he allowed just one run on four hits.

“He did a nice job for us,” Gardenhire said of Hernandez after Friday’s 16-5 loss. “We’ve got decisions we have to make. We have to see what happens with him. He’s thrown the ball very, very well. That’s why we’re waiting here. If he’s OK, there’s no guarantee we’re going to move a pitcher. We’re just going to wait until the morning.”

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