Morneau won't rush his return to first base
MINNEAPOLIS — Justin Morneau is a first baseman. During his 10-year big league career, he hasn't set foot at any other spot on the field.
But still recovering from numerous offseason surgeries (wrist, knee, foot) as well as a concussion, Morneau has yet to play a game at first base this season for the Minnesota Twins. Instead, the left-handed Morneau has been relegated to the designated hitter role as his health continues to improve.
Morneau, 30, hopes to eventually get back on the field. The question is when.
"I definitely want to get back at first. When? I'm not sure yet," Morneau said. "I'm going to continue to take ground balls and all the rest of that stuff. Obviously, I'm going to need to do it if I'm going to play in interleague (starting in mid-May). ... I'm sure I'll get out there before that."
Morneau played a handful of games at first base this spring in Fort Myers, but as camp went on he slowly transitioned into Minnesota's everyday DH. That's where he started on Opening Day last Friday, marking the first time since 2004 he wasn't the Twins' first baseman to start the season.
Though he hasn't yet played in the field, Morneau has been productive at the plate. After Wednesday's 1-for-4 performance against the Los Angeles Angels, Morneau was batting .294 (5-for-17) with a pair of doubles through five games. He also broke up Baltimore starter Jason Hammel's no-hit bid in the eighth inning of Sunday's game with a double to right field.
Morneau's spring training started slowly, and his timing at the plate was off. But the 2006 AL MVP wasn't concerned. Instead, he insisted on getting more at-bats, even taking long bus rides to places like Clearwater, something a veteran of his status normally wouldn't do.
After an 0-for-5 game against the Phillies on March 14, Morneau was just 3-for-22 at the plate. But he reiterated that it was still early in spring and that he'd have a better gauge of where his timing was once he got 40 to 50 at-bats. Sure enough, his bat came around: Morneau finished 16-for-63 with three homers and 14 RBIs.
"He's happy to be back on a baseball field. That's the big thing for us is we got him through spring training," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He feels great out there. He's seeing the ball good. He's been driving it. He's pumped up on the bench. He's missed a lot of baseball, and he's excited to get back out there."
Morneau played only 150 games in the past two seasons combined. His 2010 season ended in July when he suffered a concussion while sliding into second base. At the time, Morneau was on pace for a fifth All-Star appearance and could have garnered MVP consideration as well, as he was batting .345 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs in 81 games.
But the concussion cut his impressive season short, and he played just 69 games the following season. He again dealt with concussion symptoms as well as a wrist injury and other ailments.
Talking in front of his corner locker in the Twins clubhouse earlier this week, Morneau said he no longer is having days where his concussion symptoms are recurring. But for the better part of two years, the head injury limited what he could do both on and off the field.
Morneau simply wasn't himself.
"He's frustrated. He wants to be out there," said former Twins third baseman Corey Koskie, whose career was cut short by a concussion. "He's like, ‘Why aren't I getting better? How come I feel like this? Why is this going on?' So just talking to him and say, ‘Hey, it sounds like you're getting better. It's not on your timetable, but you're progressing, you're able to get back there.' I talked to him a little bit (Monday), so it sounds like he's feeling pretty good."
Indeed, Morneau is feeling pretty good at the plate. The ultimate goal is for him to feel good in the field as well. Until then, rookie Chris Parmelee is holding down the role as the everyday first baseman, while Joe Mauer and Ryan Doumit will also get starts at first until — and even after — Morneau returns.
The Twins will take their time to make sure Morneau is comfortable and healthy before they put him back in the field. For now, he'll continue to get his swings as a DH. It means Morneau is still a part of Minnesota's lineup, which is certainly better than the alternative after two injury-plagued seasons.
"I think it's helped a lot," Morneau said of being a DH. "The first thing it did was allow me to get a bunch of at-bats in spring training and allowed me to get my timing and feel comfortable at the plate. I think that was big. It just allows me to continue to heal instead of getting beat up every day. Hopefully everything will just continue to feel better as we go."
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