Jim Souhan: Homecoming kings of 2011 arrive hopeful

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 8, 2011 - 12:32 AM

Justin Morneau and Joe Nathan have special reasons to savor this particular home opener.

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Justin Morneau hasn't played at Target Field since last July.

Photo: Darren Calabrese, Associated Press

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NEW YORK - They traveled to Fort Myers in February, stopped in Atlanta at the end of spring training, visited Canada to open the season, commuted to New York to confront their pinstriped demons, and on Thursday night finally, mercifully, flew to Minneapolis.

This morning, in preparation for Opening Day at Target Field, they'll stock their lockers, reacquaint themselves with the Vegas-quality spa hidden behind those double doors at the back of the clubhouse, and meander toward the field, to find a new scoreboard and a batter's eye as devoid of trees as a defoliated rain forest.

For most players, Opening Day symbolizes promise. For two of the Twins' cornerstones, this Opening Day will represent a sort of homecoming.

Twins closer Joe Nathan will mark this Opening Day with a remembrance of the past. Justin Morneau is happy he can remember the past.

Nathan, who missed last season after undergoing elbow surgery, will deposit dirt he scooped from the old Dome mound during his last appearance in a Twins uniform in Minnesota onto the mound at Target Field.

"Nothing formal,'' Nathan said. "I'll just toss it on the mound when we go out for BP.''

Morneau, who last appeared in a game at Target Field on July 4 because a concussion ended his season during a trip to Toronto, has not mentioned any such rituals, but he'll be happy to jog onto the field without a handful of ibuprofen.

''I'm sure it's going to be a little bit emotional,'' Morneau said. "The season's already started so it's a little different, kind of a whirlwind, but I'm sure Opening Day will be something extra special this year.''

Nathan and Morneau are two of the Twins' three cornerstone players, along with catcher Joe Mauer.

Because of Morneau's back problems in 2009, his concussion in 2010 and Nathan's surgery, Friday could mark the first time the two will play in a game in Minnesota since Sept. 2, 2009. Their injuries are reminders of how precious and precarious every big-league season is. Their ability to return together for this Opening Day is a reminder of just how good the Twins could be when healthy.

They lost to the Yankees in the playoffs in 2009 without Morneau. They lost to the Yankees in the playoffs in 2010 without Morneau and Nathan. Even for a team with a franchise-record $113 million payroll, the 2011 Twins are at the mercy of Nathan's elbow, Morneau's synapses and Mauer's knees.

That's why the Twins' first road trip, to Toronto and New York, felt like a version of extended spring training.

While fans crave a fast start and symbolic victories over the Yankees, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire rested Morneau once in Toronto and would have rested Mauer twice in the span of four games if Wednesday night's game in the Bronx hadn't been postponed.

Wednesday night, Gardenhire even hinted he might consider keeping Mauer out of the lineup Friday, because he believes in resting Mauer and because starting pitcher Carl Pavano seems to prefer pitching to Drew Butera.

Thursday morning, Gardenhire laughed and said: "Mauer will catch on Opening Day. We don't want to all get booed, so Mauer will catch.''

With Morneau, Nathan and Mauer healthy, today the Twins will introduce a deep, talented roster. Last season, they survived the loss of Nathan by wringing a half-season of closing from Jon Rauch, then trading top prospect Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps. They survived the loss of Morneau for a second consecutive stretch run by again shifting Michael Cuddyer from right field to first base. Illogically, the Twins played better with Morneau out of the lineup.

With the organization craving more than another playoff appearance, Gardenhire will try to win a seventh division title in 10 years while monitoring the health of his three cornerstone players.

"I got a chance to watch a lot of games there last year,'' Nathan said of Target Field. "To get a chance to step out onto that field and play is going to be pretty cool. I've been away from the fans for a while now. That will be special.''

Nathan will toss a little dirt on the mound, and hope to enter the game to his trademarked song, "Stand Up And Shout,'' as the crowd welcomes him back. Morneau hopes to feel like he never left.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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