Mackey: For a rejuvenated Morneau, 'with strength comes confidence'
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- File this one away in the "things that didn't happen at this time last year" category:
Roughly 15 minutes after the Minnesota Twins completed their first spring training victory on Monday, a 5-4 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, manager Ron Gardenhire received a text message in the middle of his post-game scrum with reporters.
It was Justin Morneau, asking if he could play first base in the Twins' road game on Tuesday against the Blue Jays in Dunedin.
Morneau was already penciled into the lineup as designated hitter -- his third game in as many days as the big Canadian gears up for next week's World Baseball Classic. Morneau played six innings on Sunday, five innings on Monday and probably something similar on Tuesday.
"It's very important to be ready when you go over there and play playoff-type baseball for your country," Morneau said. "We're trying to get as many at-bats as we can before I leave so I'm prepared when I get there, and ready to play nine innings. ...
"I think obviously you put the work in that allows you to do stuff early and feel good enough and confident enough. I was able to do the normal amount (of work) this offseason. I knew the whole offseason going into it that I had to be ready -- full-game ready a month earlier than usual, and that's a big difference. But you know that and you can kind of prepare for that."
Being ready for the WBC is important, but not as important as what Morneau's current health status and frothing desire to play as much as possible symbolizes for he and the Twins.
Morneau hasn't felt this good in February in a long time -- not since 2010, he said.
"In 2010, I felt good going in, I felt strong going in. I rehabbed for part of the winter (from a back injury in 2009), but I was able to still get stronger throughout the winter."
To put Morneau's current status into context, he didn't play in three consecutive spring training games last year until March 22-24.
With a bases-loaded double on Monday, Morneau now has three RBIs after just two games. He didn't tally his third RBI of last spring until March 24.
Going through a rehab-free offseason with ample strength training has played a key role in Morneau's current rejuvenated state.
"I think I was just doing rehab the last two (offseasons)," Morneau said. "Surgeries and injuries and whatever. ...
"I was able to get stronger (throughout this offseason) as opposed to just rehab or maintain or whatever it is. I was able to build strength and kind of get back to where I was before all the injuries. ...
"I don't think anybody is pain-free, except for maybe (Aaron) Hicks, who's maybe 21 years old. It's nice to be able to just go out there and play and not think about that stuff. It's a good feeling to be part of the team, be one of the guys and just play -- be free and unrestricted, especially mentally. It's a big difference, just to go out there and just have fun."
For Morneau, getting healthy, and staying that way, couldn't come at a better time. The 31-year-old will become a free agent at the end of the year, and it's likely he'll sign one more significant deal before he passes through his prime years -- with the Twins or elsewhere.
And if Morneau is able to remain at full-strength and productive, it gives the Twins multiple options as well. They can trade him for prospects before the July 31 deadline, they can hang onto him and offer a one-year, $13 million qualifying contract in order to be eligible for draft-pick compensation, or they could lock him up beyond 2013.
Last time Morneau felt this good, he opened the 2010 season with a .345/.437/.618 batting line and 18 home runs in just 81 games before suffering a concussion.
Nobody expects him to put up that type of production again, but somewhere in that body is a former AL MVP and four-time All Star.
"I'm not going to proclaim anything," Morneau said. "But I feel strong. I think for me, as most guys, with strength comes confidence, and that's something, when you feel prepared and you feel strong, confidence kind of follows. So hopefully that continues and I'm able to maintain that through the spring and into the season."