Joe Benson regains the pep in his step in Twins outfield

The prospect finds himself in the midst of a battle for a starting job despite a disappointing, injury-plagued 2012 in the minors.

FORT MYERS, FLA. — Joe Benson twice rushed for more than 300 yards in a prep football game -- his career high is 366 -- and colleges wanted him badly as a running back. But baseball was his longtime love, having played it since he was 4 years old.

"I knew I couldn't give up baseball," he said. "It was kind of give and take. I thought with football, my body would get a little banged up."

He then chuckled while adding, "but it looks like baseball has kind of returned the favor."

Benson can laugh now. Last year, it probably wasn't wise to be around him. Benson's 2012 season was one long, frustrating rehab session as he was limited to 76 games at four different levels. A slow start and two surgeries factored into a .202 batting average, six homers and 36 RBI that made him resemble a nonprospect.

And yet, he's in major league camp with a chance to go north with the Twins as their starting center fielder.

What a sport.

"It's really unbelievable," Benson said. "Especially going from two surgeries, one to end the season. Especially with the numbers I had by my name at the end of the year."

Benson started in center Monday in the Twins' 5-4 victory over Pittsburgh and was 0-for-3 at the plate. He flew out to left in the first, grounded out in the second and struck out on a mighty hack with two on to end the third. All three center-field candidates -- Benson, Darin Mastroianni and Aaron Hicks -- have started one game this spring and all three will be in the starting outfield on Tuesday when the Twins travel to Dunedin, Fla., to play the Toronto Blue Jays.

"Right now, I just want them to all get at-bats," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.

In 2011, Benson was prospect No. 100 on Baseball America's list of top prospects. He combines athletic ability with baseball skills, although his one hurdle is taking better at-bats.

He began last season at Class AAA Rochester, hitting .179 in 28 games before being sent down to Class AA New Britain on May 7. Twelve days later, he broke the hamate bone in his left wrist. He began the season feeling what he called "twinges" in his wrist but tried to play through it.

"It explained a lot as far as April went," he said.

And more ...

He rehabilitated the wrist and made it back to New Britain in mid-July, only to be hobbled by an aching left knee, forcing him to the disabled list on Aug. 21. He went in for what was supposed to be a basic surgical cleanup, but doctors found more extensive damage and performed microfracture surgery. He was shut down for three months after that.

He was down on baseball, and admitted that he wondered if the Twins would move him off the 40-man roster during the offseason. He watched college football -- he's a Notre Dame fan -- and began missing the sport.

"Then you think about throwing on the helmet and two-a-days and popping and all the time in the gym," he said. "Deep down, I don't miss it as much as I think I do."

His rehab schedule was getting monotonous in December -- before the Twins traded starting outfielders Denard Span and Ben Revere in a span of a week. Suddenly, Benson was a contender.

"You wake up with a little more pep in your step," he said.

Benson was a second-round pick in 2006, and the Twins were not going to give up on a player with so many tools.

"It wasn't a lost season," Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said. "I think he had a heck of a learning year."

On Friday, Benson started in center during an intrasquad game. He grounded out in the first inning but flew down the line to first base. In the fourth inning, he lashed a double to the gap in left-center field. He hit first base hard, turned for second and eased in safely. The knee is good to go.

Now he's ready to shake last season off and earn a job with the major league team.

"I'm just glad I'm in a position to take the field every day," Benson said. "It could have been a lot worse."

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