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Updated: September 6th, 2013 11:11pm
After a long wait, Darin Mastroianni is back grinding away

After a long wait, Darin Mastroianni is back grinding away

by Brandon Warne
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- If a player's word is to be trusted, nobody is happier to be on the field for the Minnesota Twins in September than outfielder Darin Mastroianni

After missing four-and-a-half months -- 120 games in all -- Mastroianni was itching to get back on the baseball field, even if it meant a brief stop in Rochester in the meantime.

"It's unbelievable," Mastroianni said Friday. "It's been a lot of hard work, and I have to give a lot of credit to the training staff."

Mastroianni doesn't take kindly to time off and that was evident when he was crutching around the Twins clubhouse one early morning in late May following surgery.  As frustrated as the 28-year-old was, he was all too happy to take time to chat. At least small talk broke the monotony of the training room, whirlpool, and other various forms of treatment which took him away from his teammates and left him feeling isolated.

"This is the first time I've missed games for anything, man," Mastroianni said. "Even my Tommy John surgery came in the offseason and didn't cost me any time."

Players on the disabled list -- except in the case of prominent veterans like Toronto's Jose Bautista -- rarely travel with the team and as a result often spend time alone in the empty clubhouse. 

Over the course of his time with the Twins, it's become evident that Mastroianni is a bit of a grinder; the sort of 'rub-some-dirt-on-it' hustler whom managers likely revere and statheads lament.

That's exactly why Mastroianni was champing at the bit to get back onto the field.

Mastroianni is in the process of knocking the rust off, which has accumulated over the last four months. He has only hit .217/.208/.304 in the handful of games since returning, but has mixed in his share of good games with the bad as he plays in a pivotal month.

But just to be back up is a relief for Mastroianni, who was with Rochester during part of their stretch run and still maintains regular contact with former Red Wings teammates. "They're a rare breed down there," Mastroianni said. "They're playing their tails off and genuinely want to go far in the playoffs. They took that mini collapse hard."

Mastroianni likely would have stayed with the Red Wings until their season ended if not for the untimely injury to Wilkin Ramirez -- a fractured left tibia courtesy of a foul ball -- which likely forced the club's hand. Oswaldo Arcia already sidelined at the time with wrist and hand woes, a short Twins bench became untenable.

That meant game on for Mastro.

Not many battles are fought and settled in September, but it seems clear that one will dictate who heads into next spring training with the leg up in the centerfield job. It likely won't be Aaron Hicks, due at least in part to his Triple-A batting line of .222/.317/.333.

To be clear, that doesn't mean the Twins have soured on the long-term prospects of Hicks, the former top-100 prospect, being the club's future in centerfield. It just means he'll have to do more than what he did this spring to re-insert himself into the picture.

That leaves Mastroianni and recently-acquired Alex Presley as the two in-house candidates to grab the opening day job next year.        

It should be a fair competition, as Mastroianni -- though slowed a little by a foot flare-up sustained in Houston -- says he's 100 percent healthy and ready to go full-throttle.

Brandon Warne covers the Minnesota Twins for 1500ESPN.com. He has also contributed as a baseball analyst for Fangraphs.com and BaseballProspectus.com
Email Brandon | @Brandon_Warne
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