Mackey: Concussions an afterthought, Justin Morneau raking once again
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Justin Morneau has come pretty far over the past seven months.
The Minnesota Twins first baseman reported to the Lee County Sports Complex in Fort Myers for spring training on Feb. 23 coming off multiple surgeries and recurring concussion symptoms.
His numbers in an injury-plagued 2011 season -- .227/.285/.333, four home runs -- were not representative of the MVP-level of performance that he and the Twins had grown accustomed to.
And on Feb. 24, Morneau's tone was cautious -- if not slightly gloomy -- while speaking with reporters.
"The only thing right now that I'm worrying about coming back or bothering me as we go along is the concussion stuff," Morneau said at the time.
"I don't know how I'm going to feel tomorrow and how I'm going to feel a week from now, but today I feel good. Just go from there."
He added, somewhat ominously, "I don't think there'll be a career if (concussion symptoms) are something I'm dealing with. That's the reality of the whole thing. I've kind of come to grips with that. I'm obviously not going to continue to mess around with this if it continues to be a problem. There comes a point when you can only torture yourself so long."
Well, the season has been torturous for Morneau, considering the Twins have been buried in last place almost all season -- but not torturous from a health standpoint.
Wednesday's match-up against the Kansas City Royals represented the latest point in a season Morneau has suited up since 2008. He made it to Game 142 in 2009 before back problems sidelined him.
Consider that, then consider again where Morneau was at in spring training when he -- in consultation with doctors and trainers -- decided it would be best to forego playing first base because of the increased risk of concussion symptoms returning.
Occupying the designated hitter role over the final two weeks of spring training helped Morneau knock the rust off his bat, so he remained in that role for almost the entire month of April. But since coming off the disabled list in mid-May due to post-surgery wrist discomfort, Morneau has played 83 of his 98 games at first base.
Manager Ron Gardenhire has asked Morneau on multiple occasions if he wanted to DH more often, but Morneau has mostly turned him down.
"I think there's guys that are feeling worse at this point than I am," Morneau said with a chuckle. "There's guys that could use it a little more than I could.
"I don't see myself as a DH, I see myself as a first baseman. Really, when I started feeling better at the plate is when I started playing more first. I think I started at least swinging a little bit better. Less to think about, less worried about the hitters and all that stuff, less down time. I think that made a difference."
The concussion symptoms are nowhere in sight.
"My brain has reacted well and I'm happy with how that's gone," Morneau said. "Every day I get further away from that and it's less of a thought in everything I do, so that's good."
Morneau's wrist still bothers him from time to time, but it hasn't prevented him from getting his work in or from catching fire in the second half.
"It should calm down this winter," he said. "I'll be able to get in and just do some strengthening instead of just rehab to get it just good enough to play. My goal is to get stronger and not have anything be an issue. That's probably what I'm looking forward to the most this winter is just having a regular winter, working out and getting stronger and just feeling good going into spring training instead of going in and wondering what it's going to be like. Going in and knowing what to expect and feeling prepared. ...
"The last three years I've gone in wondering how my body is going to react instead of just feeling prepared. The worst thing as an athlete you can do is not feel like you've prepared and put the work in and whatever you need to do. It just puts you in a mental state of mind you need to be in to play at a high level. When you're able to do that it makes a difference. It gives you some kind of edge."
Not only is Morneau healthy, but he's also been extremely productive lately. Since June 29, Morneau is hitting .326/.374/.508 with nine home runs and only 39 strikeouts -- a hot stretch that has raised his batting line on the season to .280/.339/.473 with 19 bombs. He was hitting just .229 at the end of June.
When asked Wednesday about his increasingly impressive numbers, Morneau just sort of shrugged. "Yeah, I mean, I don't know," he said. "The season's not over yet. It's something that I'm working towards and starting to feel more comfortable. ... I'd rather be talking about the playoff numbers and wins and losses...
"It's tough looking at ... 'So-and-so is playing so-and-so tonight, and if they win then this team gains a game,' and all the scenarios you just kind of get caught up in as you're in that race. That's what makes it fun, that's what makes it fun for the fans -- scoreboard watching and all that stuff. It's tough when you're not doing that, hoping someone loses so you gain a game, and the rest of that stuff. ...
"It's something we'll hopefully we'll be back into next year."
Morneau, 31, is under contract for one more season at $14 million. The Twins listened to offers for him before the July 31 and August 31 trade deadlines. The Dodgers were reportedly among the most aggressive teams in pursuit.
General manager Terry Ryan ultimately decided to stand pat -- a decision that appears to be a good one, depending on the offers, because Morneau's value is only increasing.
The Twins need pitching this offseason, and they currently have seven good players rotating between six positions -- a surplus that could be tapped for trade purposes. Morneau, if dealt, could bring back solid pitching in return, and Chris Parmelee could take over as the starting first baseman.
But a lineup with a healthy, productive Morneau in it would look pretty damn good too.
"I don't think we're too far off," Morneau said. "We've got a very solid American League lineup. One through nine, we feel like we can swing with anybody. (Glen Perkins) at the end of the game, we picked up (Jared) Burton, with (Brian) Duensing down there we have a solid lefty. Alex Burnett is continuing to grow as a pitcher. There's a lot of great things. I think (Scott) Diamond has been a great find for us... And watching what (Samuel) Deduno's done in a short time. There's been a lot of positives you can look at. ...
"You look at where Chicago was at last year, and they're leading the division now. They brought up some of the young arms they have. I don't think we're that far off."