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Twins’ Justin Morneau no certainty to open season at first base

John Shipley, Pioneer Press, St. Paul, Minn. –

TAMPA, Fla. – Justin Morneau feels better than he has in months and is swinging the bat better than he has all spring. His head is clear, and his wrist is healing nicely. Yet he still doesn’t know if he’ll be the Twins’ first baseman when Minnesota opens its season April 6 at Baltimore.

“We’ll see what it comes down to,” he said Friday, March 23.

Starting as the designated hitter for the sixth straight game – seventh, if you count a minor league start Wednesday – Morneau went 1 for 4 with a double he lined over the head of New York Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson in the fifth inning of a 6-4 loss at George Steinbrenner Stadium.

Manager Ron Gardenhire was unable to shed more light on plans for Morneau, who is recovering from his second serious concussion since July 2010 – and an assortment of other injuries that required surgery, most notably one to repair his left wrist.

“We’re going to just do what we have to do, whatever it takes, I told you that from the get-go – our first goal is first base, and if that’s not going to be the right thing, we’ll move to DH,” Gardenhire said. “But right now, we’re just DH’ing. I’m keeping him off the field.”

Morneau’s double was his first hit since March 11 and raised his batting average to .108 (4 for 37) in 12 games. He already has played in more games and had more at-bats than he did all last spring (11 games, 33 at-bats), after which he played first in the season opener at Toronto.

“I think we’ll

have a talk and see what the plan is,” Morneau said. “How much first is Joe (Mauer) going to play to keep him in the lineup? What guys are going to rotate there? How we are going to use the DH? We’ll have that conversation before we leave here, for sure.”

Morneau and Mauer are the team’s best players, former American League MVPs whose absence last season was a large part of why the Twins lost 99 games. Before his 2010 concussion, Morneau was on his way to another MVP-caliber season offensively, hitting .345 with 18 homers and 56 home runs, and his defense was earning him Gold Glove talk.

Gardenhire said he already knows Morneau’s ability at first base and doesn’t really plan on playing him there much, if at all, the rest of the way. It’s more important, he said, to see who else can play first. On Friday, Ryan Doumit played first for the first time this spring. Among those playing first already this spring are Mauer, Luke Hughes, Chris Parmelee and Aaron Bates.

Morneau said he feels comfortable with his defense and that it’s more important for him to get at-bats right now. Serving as DH is the best way, he said, because he gets 4-5 at-bats a game rather than 2-3. Gardenhire also acknowledged being spooked recently when Morneau chased a foul popup near the first-base dugout.

“We talked about just getting swings and staying away from him diving into the first-base dugout and killing himself right now,” the manager said. “Remember, he’s coming off surgery, too, with his wrist. I’ll do anything to get him away from that, and that’s catching baseballs, diving, throwing baseballs – all these things.

“We just want him to take it nice and easy and let him finish and get his swing in order.”

That makes sense, certainly. Morneau suffered a season-ending concussion Aug. 28 last season while diving for a grounder and had to be cleared by Major League Baseball before playing in a game this spring. And Morneau’s history of concussions led to speculation over whether his future at DH.

But the 2006 MVP said this winter, and early this spring, that if he’s well enough to DH, he’s well enough to play first base. And the Twins seemed committed to playing him at first. Maybe they still are; maybe they just want to have a backup plan. But it just seems odd that, suddenly, no one will state definitively that Morneau is the team’s first baseman.

“Whatever allows me to be in the lineup and be healthy enough to play 162 games, and whatever it takes,” Morneau said. “And whatever is best for the team. And I think what’s best for the team is me being in the lineup every day, whatever it is. But if I’m the DH, then I can’t play interleague games and I’m resigned to pinch hitting. So (to avoid that), I would have to play first base.”

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