Morneau back in starting lineup
By Jon Krawczynski, AP Baseball Writer
MINNEAPOLIS -- Ron Gardenhire has watched Justin Morneau work his way back from a concussion that kept him out for the final three months of last season.
The Minnesota Twins manager has seen all the work the first baseman has put in and heard all the optimistic talk about being ready for opening day.
Still, Gardenhire called Morneau into his office for a one-on-one talk about where things stood, with the season just a few days away.
"I set him in my office and said, 'Are you ready to do this?'" Gardenhire told reporters in a conference call from Toronto on Thursday. "He said he's ready to do it. That's all I can go by."
Morneau will be in the Twins' opening day lineup at first base today in Toronto, the same place where his season ended last year. He was sliding into second base to try to break up a double play July 7 when Blue Jays second baseman John McDonald's knee accidentally caught Morneau in the helmet.
What initially was viewed as a minor injury wound up keeping the 2006 AL MVP out for the remainder of the season. Morneau continued to have symptoms through the winter, but they gradually started to dissipate and he's said he feels much better this spring.
The Twins have been cautious with his rehab, and he played in only 10 spring games. He hit just .152, including going 0-for-7 in two exhibition games against Atlanta this week.
"He'll tell you that he's getting closer," Gardenhire said. "There's been a couple times he really looked like he was on the ball. In Atlanta, it looked like he was lifting it a little bit. That's just from not getting him on the field enough so he can get his swing down."
Morneau will be hitting in his customary cleanup spot, but Gardenhire said he will look to get his slugger more days off early in the season than he normally does. With Jim Thome on the bench, Gardenhire has another formidable option to plug into the cleanup spot on days that Morneau rests.
It's likely DH Jason Kubel would move to right field and Michael Cuddyer would come in to play first base in that scenario, which is how the Twins played it when Morneau was out last season.
"We'll play a few days and see how he's doing and give him a break, a game here and there," Gardenhire said. "That gives me a chance to get Thome in the lineup."
All in all, Gardenhire said he was pleased with the health of his team as the season approached. Catcher Joe Mauer had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in the winter and didn't do much catching in the spring, but all indications are he is ready to go.
Joe Nathan is back in the closer's role as well after missing last season because of Tommy John surgery. Nathan had his customary slow spring with a 9.72 ERA in nine outings, but the Twins have been encouraged by how his arm has responded after the surgery.
Nathan will be Gardenhire's first option for the ninth inning, but he won't hesitate to bring in Matt Capps, a closer acquired last season in a trade with Washington, to give Nathan a day off every now and then.
"We know Joe's not going to be able to go out there three, four days in a row, or maybe even two," Gardenhire said. "We're going to try to protect him early in the season. We've got two pretty good ones there."