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Josh Willingham

Josh Willingham is on a pace to hit 30 home runs and drive in 105 runs this season.

Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Reusse: Willingham welcome as classic slugger

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE
  • Star Tribune
  • May 31, 2012 - 11:33 AM

Josh Willingham seems to be a slugger who wants a challenge. He spent last season with Oakland playing in a home park notorious for being a tough place to hit home runs.

It was his sixth full season in the big leagues, and he finished with career highs of 29 home runs and 98 RBI.

He became a free agent, and the A's made no attempt to bring him back. The Twins went after him as a replacement for Michael Cuddyer. What were the other options for the 33-year-old outfielder?

Willingham mentioned Seattle, Cleveland and Cincinnati, and said the offers were "very similar'' to the three-year, $21 million deal that he signed with the Twins.

So, if you're a home run hitter and have a choice between spacious Target Field or Cincinnati's bandbox, you have to be a guy who wants some drama over the result when you put the fat part of the bat on a pitch to choose Minnesota.

The Reds' Todd Frazier hit a home run at Great American Park the other day even though the bat slipped out of his hands during the swing. There will be no such sissified swings resulting in walk-offs at Target Field, as Willingham demonstrated on Tuesday night.

The Twins and the A's engaged in an impressive duel of feeble hitting, until Willingham smashed a three-run, two-out home run in the ninth inning to give the home team a 3-2 victory. This blast traveled into the bullpen in distant left-center and was estimated at 398 feet.

On Wednesday, Willingham came back with another -- and his 10th of the year -- in the Twins' 4-0 victory. This one was pulled to left field and to the back of the second deck, with an estimate of 417 feet.

Willingham has hit seven of his 10 home runs in Target Field. He was asked which locale -- the bullpen or the back of the second deck -- requires more of a clout?

"This is a good-sized ballpark,'' Willingham said. "And the bullpen is a long way out there.''

How do Target Field and the Oakland Coliseum compare for home run potential? "The dimensions are a little bigger here, but the ball doesn't carry as well in Oakland at night,'' Willingham said. "Overall, it's about the same.''

Willingham was the Twins' hottest hitter to start the season, then went cold. He had a stretch this month when he was 3-for-26 with 14 strikeouts. And then back he came, to win a game on Tuesday with a three-run home run, and to put away another with a two-run home run on Wednesday.

These stretches of hot and cold have a tendency to be overhyped by modern baseball fandom. The social media live on instant reaction. When a hitter is hot, he's headed to the All-Star Game. When he's cold, he's killing the lineup and should be dropped from the middle of the order.

What Willingham is in actuality is an old-time slugger. And this is how they always have functioned: They punish pitches for a while, and they miss pitches for a while, and when you add it up, the productivity is there.

Willingham has 10 home runs and 35 RBI. The Twins are four games short of the one-third mark of the season. So, triple Willingham's numbers, and he's at 30 home runs and 105 RBI, and who cares about the 135 strikeouts?

The new slugger's production will look very helpful in comparison to Cuddyer's 20 home runs and 70 RBI in 139 games last season.

Asked about Willingham's credentials as a pull-hitting power threat, manager Ron Gardenhire said:

"He's going to miss a few now and then. But if you make a mistake over the plate, he can hit it a long way.

"He never argues balls and strikes. He goes about his business. And if you strike him out, he doesn't go back to the dugout and whine. He's just going to try to get you in the next at-bat.''

Carl Pavano, the veteran starter, was in civilian clothes and getting ready to leave the home clubhouse. He was Willingham's teammate briefly in Florida in 2004.

"Josh is a complete pro,'' Pavano said. "And a team needs all of those it can get.''

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on 1500-AM. preusse@startribune.com

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