Mackey: As camp breaks, Twins have answered all questions -- for now
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- That's a wrap.
The Minnesota Twins boarded a flight from Fort Myers to Atlanta on Monday night, putting the Lee County Sports Complex in their rear view mirror.
It sounds cliché, but the Twins accomplished an incredible amount in Fort Myers this spring, considering the long checklist presented on February 17 when pitchers and catchers first reported:
A Japanese infielder, new to American culture and major-league competition, without a defined position on his new club.
A concussed first baseman who hadn't played baseball since July 7, working slowly toward recovery without any assurances or time tables.
A catcher coming off knee surgery.
Once again -- a catcher. Coming off knee surgery.
One outfielder battling toe problems. Another outfielder coping with a gigantic hole in his foot where a wart used to reside.
A 36-year-old closer attempting to come back from Tommy John surgery.
Three starting pitchers who either had off-season surgery or dealt with some sort of early-February arm discomfort, or both.
Not to mention, the lingering, bitter taste of 12 straight playoff defeats -- most of them to the New York Yankees.
The team -- players, field staff and front office included -- generally downplayed the gravity of this checklist, but how many teams truly entered the preseason with more question marks in key spots than the Twins?
"I call it a process," said 20-year veteran Jim Thome. "Everything's a process. You don't win a world championship in March. And I mean that. You can head towards winning in April."
But it is possible to lose championships -- division or otherwise -- in March or April.
Instead, the Twins have gone through March on a gradual crescendo, adding Justin Morneau and Delmon Young to the lineup on March 8, Joe Mauer on March 16 (and back behind the plate on March 17) and Michael Cuddyer on March 20.
Nick Blackburn and Scott Baker, both coming off clean-up elbow surgery, have thrown the ball well and appear healthy. Francisco Liriano, coming off a mild case of shoulder tendinitis, struck out 23 in 18 2/3 innings, struggling at times with control, but eventually dialing things in with six solid innings on Monday.
Joe Nathan's spring numbers -- an 11.05 ERA with three strikeouts and four walks in 7 1/3 innings -- are underwhelming, but his arm feels healthy, his velocity hovers around 92, and he says he feels comfortable if and when he's told to pitch in the ninth inning.
Nathan's comfort level isn't as important as manager Ron Gardenhire's comfort level, but it counts for something.
Not to mention, Tsuyoshi Nishioka has fit seamlessly into the clubhouse, and his defense at second base had Gardenhire talking about potential Gold Gloves early last week -- "I'm not going to say it now, but at the end of the day he might have one over here if he plays like he's playing right now."
Hurdles do remain. Morneau must still be cleared by doctors for regular-season play, and both Mauer and Cuddyer must prove they're able to catch and play outfield, respectively, on a daily basis with no setbacks.
Plus, the Twins aren't really sure what type of production they will see from the backend of the bullpen or the middle infielders.
"Yeah. I'm happy," Gardenhire said when asked about his level of satisfaction about the way spring training played out.
He cautioned, however, "I'm hoping we've had enough at-bats for some guys. I know it's easy for Mauer. Is it enough for Morneau? Is it enough for Cuddy? I think Delmon's doing fine. Are you getting them enough at-bats? I don't know. I don't have an answer. Only time's going to tell."
Gardenhire added, with a shrug, "If they're healthy and they're on the ball club..."
If spring numbers are any indication, any mild uneasiness Gardenhire had about at-bats might be gone before the team boards for Toronto. Mauer ripped a single on the second pitch he saw and is hitting .375/.474/.438 in 16 spring at-bats. Morneau started slow, but he has three doubles and zero strikeouts in his last four games. Nishioka talled a 13-game hitting streak, bumping his spring line to .347/.373/.429. And Young is simply crushing everything he sees, hitting .415/.442/.707 with three homers and three doubles in 41 trips.
In some ways, there is a sense of finality, strange as it may seem, as the Twins migrate from Fort Myers to Atlanta, and eventually to Toronto for the season-opener on April 1. It's almost as if the team has crossed a finish line of some sort.
The first of multiple finish lines. Potentially.
"Your goal is going into the season full strength, and it looks like we are," said Cuddyer, who has gone 4-for-12 with two doubles and a monster home run over the Big City Reds sign at Hammond Stadium since returning to action. "So yeah, March has played out -- obviously you don't want to have guys battling through things in spring training, but as long as everybody crossed the finish line, meaning April, we're intact, you can't ask for anything better."
And if April 1 is the finish line, consider March to be Lap 1.
"Anytime you get that far and you play well like we did the course of (last) year, I think there's always that little bit of unfinished business feeling you get," Thome said.
"It's like, OK, we want to come back this year and be positive like we were, and get some guys healthy that weren't. And now we have that."