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Morneau builds on Hunter’s lesson

By Patrick Reusse

Minneapolis Star Tribune

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Justin Morneau arrives at Hammond Stadium at 6:30 a.m. on game days. This is a change from previous years, when Morneau would show up an hour later with the crowd of teammates.

"It comes from something Torii Hunter told me," Morneau said. "He said, ‘I don’t try to maintain my strength with my weightlifting program in spring training. I’m still trying to build through March, so I’ll be the strongest I’m going to be all year on Opening Day.’

"You think about it, and it makes a lot of sense. That’s why I’m here early — so I can have a good workout with the weights before it’s time to get ready for our pregame stuff."

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Morneau had gone with the more-typical routine of lifting after he left games in previous springs.

"That makes for a real long day," he said. "You’re probably trying to get it done at that time of the afternoon. Early in the morning, you can go after it harder.

"If it means you’re a little tired and might make an extra out in an exhibition game. I’d rather be stronger when the season starts."

Morneau started spending the offseason in Arizona while still a minor leaguer. His winter days consisted of lengthy workouts and plenty of swings against live pitching.

He became the Twins’ regular first baseman after the All-Star Game in 2004, replacing Doug Mientkiewicz. Morneau batted .271 with 19 home runs and 58 RBIs in 74 games.

The job was his in 2005, and he went backward — .239 with 22 home runs and 79 RBIs in 141 games.

Late in the season, there was the notorious clubhouse incident in which Hunter threw a punch that was intended for Morneau but struck Nick Punto. Torii had been on the disabled list after breaking an ankle in July.

"I was struggling, and Torii was hurt and out of the lineup for one of the few times in his career," Morneau said. "There was a lot of frustration involved in that situation. It was probably a good thing it happened at the end of the season, so we had the winter to get over it."

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Morneau said it took a five-minute session on their first day of 2006 spring training to put aside the bad feelings. They became close friends and confidantes. Morneau listened to what Hunter had to say about preparing for the grind of a baseball schedule.

"I also had spent the offseason in Arizona, going through my usual workout program," Morneau said. "I had seen a good month of live pitching before I came to Fort Myers."

He went from the struggle of ’05 to a sensation in ’06, batting .321 with 34 home runs, 130 RBIs and concluded with the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award.

Morneau changed his offseason routine in the winter of 2006-07. He spent most of his time in Vancouver, working out and taking his swings in indoor cages.

"There’s a big difference between that and live pitching," he said.

Morneau batted .271 with 31 home runs and 111 RBIs last season. That production was solid enough for the Twins to give the 26-year-old a six-year, $80 million contract at the end of January. It wasn’t solid enough for Morneau to spend another winter in his home province.

"I worked out all winter in Arizona with a trainer named Brett Fischer," he said. "We’d work out for three hours in the morning, then get whatever swings we wanted against live pitching.

"I know for sure that I didn’t feel as ready for spring training a year ago as I did when I got here this time."

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Morneau said his goals this spring are to "stay strong and let the swing get to where it wants to be."

In previous years, Morneau would be at full strength when spring training started, would carry it through March and would start to lose some lifting power as the regular season started.

The theory behind this 6:30 a.m. lifting is to reach a peak at the same time Hunter and his L.A. Angels come to the Metrodome for the opener March 31.

"The idea is to be at maximum strength through the month of April," Morneau said. "Can’t hurt, can it?"

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