Morneau sizzling at the plate
MINNEAPOLIS — Justin Morneau has struggled in recent seasons with a Catch-22 of sorts or, maybe in his case, a Hit-22.
The Minnesota first baseman's workout regimen is the stuff of legend around the Twins' clubhouse, an exhaustive routine that he believes is the biggest reason he has made himself into an All-Star.
It's also the biggest reason, the Twins believe, that Morneau watched the last month of last season from the bench because of a back injury. Team officials have told him he's wearing himself out with the early mornings and late nights taking swings, watching video and lifting weights.
After ignoring requests to take it a little easier, Morneau has found a compromise, and it appears to be paying off. He is off to a sizzling start in 2010, leading the A.L. with a .383 average, .497 on-base percentage and a .707 slugging percentage for the first-place Twins.
"My preparation's been a little different," Morneau said. "I obviously realized how much I miss the game when I wasn't playing."
The Canadian slugger's back started bothering him in August, and his production steadily declined until he was shelved on Sept. 12. He watched the rest of the season from the bench, rejoicing when the Twins rallied to win the AL Central in a playoff and then smoldering helplessly as they were swept by the New York Yankees in the first round of the postseason.
He rested for much of the offseason to let the injury heal, then curtailed the amount of work he did in spring training in hopes of returning to full strength by the start of the regular season.
Playing on natural grass every day at new Target Field has been a welcome change from the body ache-inducing artificial turf at the Metrodome. He doesn't take quite as many swings before games these days and has worked with veteran Jim Thome to make sure his body can absorb the pounding of a long season.
"I think he's learned a little about not killing himself now, taking all these swings," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Anytime we have an optional BP, he normally hits in the cage lightly rather than going out and taking 8 million swings. He's learned to make adjustments as he goes and that's part of growing up in this league."
The biggest change, Morneau said, is that he installed a copy of the computer system the Twins use at Target Field to study opposing pitchers in his home. That allows him to shorten the amount of time he needs to be at the ballpark and arrive better prepared for the next day's game.
Taking his work home with him has also resulted in more productive plate appearances early in games. When Morneau would cram his studying in while at the ballpark, he said he often stepped into the batter's box for the first time without a clear picture of what was coming.
"Instead of going up there the first at-bat and trying to figure out what he's doing, I'm having a plan from the first pitch," said Morneau, whose Twins host the Yankees for a three-game series beginning Tuesday.
The 2006 American League MVP also ranks in the top five in the AL in home runs (11), RBIs (34), hits (59) and doubles (14).
"He's the reason why we're doing so well," Jason Kubel said. "He's really picking up the slack and putting things in his own hands."
And it's not just because of his offense. The Twins converted Morneau from catcher to first base in the minor leagues, and he has blossomed into one of the best defensive first basemen in the game.
Morneau turned two 3-6-3 double plays, arguably the most difficult turn for an infielder to make, in a win Saturday over the Milwaukee Brewers and is starting to get noticed as a premier defender.
"He takes so much pride in his defense and that's very uncommon for a slugger, for a guy paid to drive in runs," Twins third baseman Nick Punto said. "For me, he's the best first baseman in the league. I hope that people see that. I hope this is the year he wins the Gold Glove. He deserves it as much as anybody."
The reigning Gold Glover at first base, Mark Teixeira, is in town with the Yankees this week.
"You hear a lot about Mark Teixeira and Mark Teixeira's great. He's one of the best," Punto said. "But Morneau's in that class. For me, I get to see him everyday. I feel like he's the best."