– For Mig­uel Sano, the past 16 months have been about one thing.

“Practice, practice, practice,” the Twins’ top minor league slugger said. “I try to, when I come back, be ready.”

He was ready on Wednesday, and Sano, a 21-year-old third baseman from the Dominican Republic, was in Paul Molitor’s first lineup as Twins manager, batting fifth in the exhibition opener against the Gophers baseball team. It was the first time since a Dominican Winter League game on Oct. 19, 2013, that Sano had faced anyone other than a teammate at the plate.

“It’s exciting,” Sano said before the game, after showing reporters the circular scar on his right elbow, the result of Tommy John ligament replacement surgery last spring that cost him all of 2014. “It’s pretty good. [The elbow] doesn’t bother me at all.”

It certainly doesn’t bother his swing; Sano’s batting practice sessions have become a must-see highlight of the Twins’ camp, a power display reminiscent of Jim Thome’s days in Minnesota.

That’s great news for Molitor, who has been watching the minor league star closely. “I kind of tried to monitor how he’s doing in the drills. He hasn’t had any issues with that elbow,” Molitor said.

Sano smashed a single up the middle in his first at-bat of the spring, a reflection of his current emphasis on using the whole field.

“Tonight, [I] try to hit the ball to right field. Because if I can hit to right field, I can hit to left and in the middle,” he said. “I can hit every pitch, and that’s what I try to do all the time. [Stay] inside the ball [and hit a] line drive to right field. If they throw me inside, I can pull.”

What nerves?

He kept checking his lineup card, just to make certain he had nine players listed, and one for each position. But “I wouldn’t say I’m nervous,” Molitor said shortly before managing a major league team for the first time. “I’ve thought a lot about the different things that transpire down here. I spent a long time this winter trying to prepare.”

If he’s not feeling too many nerves, Molitor has been aware that his presence might prompt others to feel differently.

So “I’ve tried to stay away from watching guys throw and put extra pressure on them early. The old saying is, you don’t make the team early in spring training, so I’ve given them the freedom to prepare,” Molitor said. “Especially young guys, I don’t want to get someone amped up, I want them to go about their business as they need to.”

Waiting their turn

Tommy Milone will be the first fifth-starter candidate to get the ball this spring. After Kyle Gibson opens the spring schedule on Thursday, the lefthanded Milone will start against Tampa Bay on Friday.

Phil Hughes starts Saturday across town at the Red Sox home park (with Mike Pelfrey, another candidate for the fifth-starter job scheduled to follow him).

Ervin Santana makes his Twins debut Sunday against the Orioles, and Ricky Nolasco goes Monday in Bradenton against the Pirates.

On deck

The Twins open Grapefruit League play against, the crosstown Red Sox, whom they will meet nine times this spring. Gibson will make his first start of 2015 in Hammond Stadium, facing Boston righthander Joe Kelly in a 6 p.m. game that will be televised on FSN Plus.

PHIL MILLER