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Josh Willingham crossed home plate with the winning run against Milwaukee.

Marlin Levison,

Hartman: Willingham's bat is coming around

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN
  • Star Tribune
  • June 5, 2014 - 8:31 AM

Twins left fielder Josh Willingham finally is starting to look like the slugger the Twins got as a free agent in 2012, after struggling because of injuries for most of last season and already missing 40 games this year because of a wrist injury.

It is pretty apparent that when he is in the lineup and healthy, the Twins can compete with anyone as they showed on their recent road trip to New York against the Yankees and to Milwaukee.

Willingham was asked last week before leaving town how difficult it was to miss such a big chunk of time at the start of this season.

“How tough has it been for me this year? It has been a little frustrating,” he said.

When asked if there was any other season that was as difficult, he simply said, “Yeah, last year.”

When the Twins signed Willingham to a three-year, $21 million contract in 2011, there was a big belief the righthanded slugger would be able to replace Michael Cuddyer’s bat in the lineup and also pull a number of home runs into the shorter left-field bleachers at Target Field.

His first year with the club in 2012 proved that out when Willingham hit .260 and led the team in home runs (35), RBI (110), slugging percentage (.524) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.890).

His 35 homers were the13th-highest single-season total in team history.

But last year, Willingham really struggled because of knee injuries. He managed to play 111 games, but he never looked like himself, hitting only .208 with 14 home runs and 48 RBI in 389 at-bats.

Then this season began, and Willingham played in only six games before breaking a bone in his wrist after being hit by a pitch.

But now the slugger is looking as if he’s back to that 2012 form. Willingham went 2-for-3 with an RBI and two runs scored in a 6-4 victory over Milwaukee on Wednesday night and extended his hitting streak to eight games. He is hitting .440 with four homers, 11 RBI and a .575 on-base percentage during that streak.

Following the Twins’ 6-4 victory over the Brewers on Tuesday, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire told the media that the team hopes Willingham’s injuries are behind him.

“Our concern was that he was swinging good when he started the season,” Gardenhire said. “You never know after you break a bone how it is going to come back. He’s come back, he’s on the baseball and I still think his legs are underneath him. He doesn’t have the knee problems and that has allowed him to do what he needs to do to get the bat head out.”

Twins saw potential

Willingham spent his 2011 season in Oakland. That year he faced the Twins seven times and hit .320 with three home runs and eight RBI, which helped convince General Manager Terry Ryan to bring him to Minnesota.

When Willingham signed, he said he knew why the Twins brought him here.

“I knew I was looked upon to bring some power and some thump to that lineup,” he said in 2011. “I think I’m at my best, offensively, when I’m going deep into some counts and working some walks and seeing a lot of pitches.”

The Twins saw Willingham reach that potential in 2012, and now it looks like he’s found it again in 2014.

Busy summer at U

Summer school starts at Minnesota on Monday, and the Gophers football team expects everybody to be in school and working out. As for injured players, coach Jerry Kill reported recently that everybody should be ready to go in the fall.

“The only one, and he’s making a run at things, is [sophomore linebacker] Cody Poock, the young man who transferred in,” said Kill. “He had a [torn] ACL during the spring, and he’s already doing things that nobody thought he would do. He’s on a mission. Whether he’s going to be ready or not — we may have him in time for the Big Ten season — but you know other than that, we’re getting pretty much everybody back.

“This is a critical time. There are a lot of them going through rehab, but I think we’ll be in pretty good shape, just according to how things go.”

Kill said redshirt junior center Jon Christenson, who missed most of last season after suffering a serious leg injury, has done really well in his rehab. “I think he’s going to be able to start with us Aug. 1,” Kill said.

Jottings

• Vikings coach Mike Zimmer on whether he can tell if his players are buying into his system and coaching style: “I don’t worry about that. I don’t worry about if they are buying in. My job is to coach them hard and try to get them to be the best players they can be. You’d have to ask them if they are buying in, really. My job is to coach them.”

• Tyus Jones, the Apple Valley point guard headed for Duke, will be taking part in the USA Basketball Under-18 team training camp from June 17-24 in Colorado Springs. That team will be led by Florida coach Billy Donovan. Former Cooper standout Rashad Vaughn, who is attending UNLV, also will be at the tryouts.

• Bronson Dovich, the Chaska offensive tackle who committed to Kill and the Gophers recently, told GopherHole.com he’s happy to have signed with the Gophers because now he can just focus on playing his senior season. “Before I had an offer, I was really trying to check out a few places,” he said. “Minnesota wasn’t showing too much interest, but after the Rivals camp they started to show me more interest and offered me. I knew that was the place for me. When I heard they were getting interested in me, I knew that this was the place that I wanted to be.”

• Joe Mauer showed how quickly he can turn around his batting average, going 5-for-12 with two doubles over the past three games heading into Wednesday night and taking his average from .267 to .276. He went 0-for-4 Wednesday, dropping the average to .271.

• A year ago the Twins’ farm club at Class AAA Rochester was weak on pitching, but it is a different story this year. Since May 12, the Rochester starting rotation is 12-5 with an outstanding 2.13 ERA. One of the starters, Trevor May, was named International League Pitcher of the Week after going 2-0 in two starts without allowing an earned run.

• William Leaf, an outstanding golfer from Winona, is transferring to Minnesota from SIU-Edwardsville and will be eligible this fall.

• Former Gopher Donald Snelten is 3-0 with 0.71 ERA in 11 games for the San Francisco Giants’ Class A affiliate in Augusta, Ga. Snelten has 17 strikeouts in 12 ⅔ innings pitched.

• Former Gopher Zach Budish has six goals and four assists in 21 playoff games for the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL, who are playing the Alaska Aces in the Kelly Cup finals. … Josh Birkholz, another one-time Gopher, is also on the team and has three goals and four assists in 21 games.

 

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40, 8:40 and 9:20 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com

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