Scoggins: A ball or a wall, Willingham makes a dent in it for Twins

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 12, 2012 - 6:36 AM

There's nothing boring about the way he plays baseball, though. At the plate or in left field.

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Twins left fielder Josh Willingham crashed into the wall at Target Field, trying to catch what turned into an inside-the-park, three-run home run by the Angels' Peter Bourjos in the fifth inning Wednesday night.

Photo: Jim Mone, Associated Press

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Josh Willingham chooses his words judiciously and shares thoughts in snippets, at least in the presence of media members or if the topic involves himself. A typical answer is proceeded by a shrug.

There's nothing boring about the way he plays baseball, though.

At the plate or in left field.

He demonstrated that again Wednesday night as the Twins defeated the Los Angeles Angels 6-5 for their first victory of the season, Willingham's first in his new uniform.

Willingham gave the Twins their first lead of the season with a massive home run to left in the fourth inning. He followed that with an Evel Knievel crash-landing impersonation while chasing a fly ball, which resulted in an inside-the-park home run by Peter Bourjos.

"It was an adventurous night," Willingham said.

Nothing wrong with a little adventure to lighten the mood. In response to an 0-4 start that included some sloppy defense, anemic hitting and a 6.14 earned-run average by starting pitchers, Twins fans wondered whether it's too early in the season to panic. That, of course, was more a rhetorical question because any whiff of trouble on the heels of a 99-loss season makes it impossible to muffle fan angst.

Naturally, news surfaced before the game that a second opinion on Scott Baker's troubled right elbow revealed damage to a tendon that requires season-ending surgery. That, perhaps, pushed fans even closer to panic.

The Twins desperately needed a victory -- regardless of how it looked -- and Willingham added his own touch of excitement, in both good and forgettable ways.

His two-run, 407-foot blast in the fourth inning gave the Twins a 3-1 lead, a foreign position for them so far this season. The Twins' struggles at the plate through four games were alarming, but the slump didn't touch Willlingham.

Signed to a three-year, $21 million contract this offseason, Willingham has hit safely in all five games with three home runs. His six RBI are half of the Twins' team total.

"My approach is simple: I look for something good to hit," he said. "Usually that's in the middle of the plate. That's pretty simple. If I get a pitch, I swing at it. See what happens. I'm not trying to hit it out of the park or anything. Just hit it hard."

Willingham earned the nickname "Hammer" from teammates years ago and it stuck. He's quick to note it's merely a play on words off his last name, but it's fitting nonetheless. The guy is powerfully built and tries to pummel baseballs.

Or walls.

The poor Target Field wall found that out when Willingham crashed into it while attempting to catch a fly ball off Bourjos' bat. Willingham missed the ball by a foot and then bounced off the wall. That misplay allowed Bourjos to circle the bases and three runs to score.

"He's just got to learn the wall a little bit better because he tried to knock it down with his body," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire joked. "We don't mind him hitting it over it, but let's not knock the wall down with your body."

That seems like a reasonable tradeoff. Willingham is not exactly nimble in the field and already has two errors this season, matching his season total in Oakland last season. Luckily for the Twins, his crash landing Wednesday didn't result in injury, although his cleat ripped the padding on the wall.

"I was just trying to make a play and got there a little late," he said. "I felt the warning track and knew I was close to the wall so I just jumped and tried to make a play on the ball. I hit the wall pretty hard and fell back down. Just tried to make a play."

His defensive adventure notwithstanding, Willingham's transition to a new team has been fairly seamless. He's adjusted to a new clubhouse and lineup and picked up offensively where he left off last season when he hit 29 home runs with 98 RBI for Oakland.

"So far, so good," he said.

That's about as deep as he's willing to delve into his fast start.

"The reasons we went after the young man is because we knew he is a great guy for the clubhouse," Gardenhire said. "A very good baseball player but a good guy for the clubhouse. One of these guys that you're going to follow and watch him do some pretty special things, and I think you're seeing it early."

Chip Scoggins ascoggins@startribune.com

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