He’s asked his hitting coach, and the best home-run hitter on the team. “Anyone who will listen, basically,’’ he said.
He’s tried taking extra batting practice, hitting off a tee from home plate, swinging with one hand, concentrating on putting backspin on the ball so it will soar through the air the way it once did, not so long ago, when he was on his way to becoming the second-best home run hitter in Twins history. “I’ve tried all the tricks in my bag,’’ he said.
Justin Morneau keeps searching for the sweet spot and getting tart results. He has gone 168 plate appearances since his last home run, on April 28. Has has two home runs this season. “I’ve never been through anything like this,’’ he said.
Games like Tuesday’s dull the pain. Morneau went 3-for-4 with a double and two RBI. With two out in the eighth, he fouled off four pitches from Phillies lefty Antonio Bastardo before lining a game-winning single up the middle. He leads the team in RBI and is second in batting average.
He is fulfilling many of his responsibilities, but while fans long begged Joe Mauer to turn into Morneau at the plate, Morneau has become more like Mauer. “I’ve been searching for the answer for a while,’’ he said.
Morneau’s next home run will tie him with Kirby Puckett for fifth on the team’s all-time home-run list, but he expected to pass that milestone in April, not pursue it deep into June. “I’d obviously like to hit more home runs,’’ he said. “That gives us a better chance to win. That means driving in more runs. That’s what I want to do.’’
Before John McDonald’s knee hit Morneau’s head on July 7, 2010, Morneau was having his best season, hitting .345 with 18 homers, a .437 on-base percentage and a .618 slugging percentage. His OPS (on-base plus slugging) was 1.055. Last year, Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown and the AL MVP award with an OPS of .999.
Kent Hrbek ranks second in team history with 293 home runs, amassed in 14 seasons. Morneau hit 181 in his first 7 ½ seasons, including his first two, in which he bounced between the majors and minors. He has hit 25 since. At 32, with his contract expiring this year, his future will be determined by his ability to recapture the swing of his youth.
“We have discussions about this,’’ he said, quietly, before Tuesday’s game. “Getting on base puts pressure on the other team and helps you score runs, but as much as it’s my job to get on base, it’s also my job to drive in the guys who are on base. I feel like I’ve been having good at-bats with runners in scoring position. It’s just the results of the home runs are something I’d like to see.
“I’ve been trying to do everything I’ve done in the past when I lose that home run swing to try and find it. It feels good. I’m just not getting the results I want. They’re in there somewhere.’’
Aaron Hicks has more homers from each side of the plate than Morneau does overall. Morneau trails Brian Dozier, Pedro Florimon, Mauer, Chris Parmelee and the injured Trevor Plouffe in the category that defines his position and role.
If you believe in happy endings, you can hope that Morneau’s homerless streak could make him affordable and willing to re-sign with the Twins. For now, he seeks out hitting coach Tom Brunansky, and teammate Josh Willingham, and anyone else who might see a hitch keeping him from reaching the seats.
“I feel like, especially in the last week, I’ve been on pitches I feel I should be hitting over the fence, and missing them by a quarter of an inch, and they’re pop-ups,’’ he said. “Sometimes you can’t figure it out, and the more you try, the more you go in the other direction.
“I have to believe that if I keep squaring the ball up and hitting it hard that eventually they’re going to turn into homers. I have to believe that.’’
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org