Morneau delivers message to get back where he belongs

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 10, 2011 - 10:11 PM

Coming off neck surgery, the slugger wasn't shy in demanding to return to the lineup. The Twins must keep him there.

Justin Morneau was starting a season with the Twins for the first time in 2005. He was hit in the helmet by a pitch from Seattle reliever Ron Villone in the third game.

Morneau went on the disabled list because of a concussion. He missed 13 games and returned to the lineup April 22.

Starting then through Sept. 12, 2009, the Twins totaled 778 regular-season games and Morneau played in 750. This included playing in all 163 games in 2008.

Morneau had played despite back pain for several weeks in 2009. He was swinging feebly in September -- 3-for-39 (.077) -- and finally was sent for an MRI. It showed a stress fracture in his lower back.

He missed the rest of the season, including another Game 163 and then the playoff sweep at the hands of the Yankees.

Since then, from mid-September 2009 through Wednesday night at Target Field, the Twins totaled 300 regular-season games and Morneau played in 136.

Morneau missed the final 78 games of 2010 with the aftereffects of a concussion suffered July 7. He has missed the past 55 games after undergoing neck surgery for a herniated disk.

Morneau has been playing this week for Rochester, the Twins' Class AAA farm club. The plan was to have him join the big-league club in Detroit on Monday.

On Wednesday morning, Morneau sent a text to General Manager Bill Smith that read, "Get me out of here." There was a graphic adverb that modified "out."

A minute later, Morneau sent a text apologizing for use of the adverb, and repeating his desire to rejoin the Twins on Friday in Cleveland.

Manager Ron Gardenhire said in Wednesday's pregame media session that Morneau had won the debate and will return Friday.

"I talked to him and he feels great," Gardenhire said. "That's the first time he's said that to me since he was kneed in the head last July. In spring training and then the first two months [of the schedule], I'd ask how he was doing and he'd say, 'Living the dream.'

"Either that or, 'It is what it is.'

"He sounds different now. He has no doubts. He's been hammering the ball. He wants to get back where he belongs."

Last July 7, Morneau was batting .345, with 18 home runs and 56 RBI. He had been voted a starting first baseman in the All-Star Game.

He took a John McDonald knee to the head in a play at second base in Toronto, and the Twins haven't come close to seeing what they consider to be the real Morneau in the 13 months since.

The public perception has become that Morneau is another Twins player who is both injury-prone and willing to sit when not feeling perfect. There's a far different view of Morneau in the Twins clubhouse, starting with the manager.

"For five years, it almost took an Act of Congress to get Mornie out of the lineup," Gardenhire said. "He wanted to play 'em all. He did in '08 ... played 163.

"He's going to have to change a few things. He's going to have to DH a few times a month, rather than diving around at first base every night. For sure, he's going to have to change his offseason program.

"He can't be killing himself all winter. Justin knows that, too. He said when this neck thing started that he was going to have to change his workouts -- less strength, more flexibility stuff."

This wipeout of a homestand against the Sox from Chicago and Boston has enabled the Twins to stop the charade and start talking about 2012. And they understand the decline will continue if Morneau (31 next May) and Joe Mauer (29 next April) can't regain their star status.

"We need them on the field every night, doing what they can do," Gardenhire said.

Morneau and Mauer have played in the same game nine times since last July 7 -- nine games of 195.

"I miss the sight of them standing there at the corner of dugout, talking about the pitcher they are getting ready to face," Gardenhire said. "We need those two guys hitting together, playing together, to turn this around."

The manager paused and then added: "That, and a couple of free agents."

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

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