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Updated: February 20th, 2013 5:25pm
Zulgad: Darin Mastroianni hoping to be center of attention in outfield

Zulgad: Darin Mastroianni hoping to be center of attention in outfield

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

Darin Mastroianni was in Venezuela playing winter ball in December when he opened an e-mail from his agent.

The message informed the Minnesota Twins outfielder that Ben Revere had been dealt to the Philadelphia Phillies for two pitchers.

Mastroianni immediately had mixed feelings.

On one hand, he knew this presented a great opportunity. Denard Span already had been dealt to the Washington Nationals and now Span's replacement was headed to the National League. Suddenly, the Twins center fielder job was wide open.

But Mastroianni also had to deal with the disappointment of having one of his best friends traded away.

"I think we had wanted to play together for so long and we got that chance (last year)," Mastroianni said as he sat in the Twins' clubhouse last week in Fort Myers, Fla. "We had so much fun that I know I was looking forward to it again."

What Mastroianni has to look forward to now is the competition he will have with Joe Benson and Aaron Hicks in the coming weeks. Mastroianni had entered the offseason assuming he would return to compete for the fourth outfield spot.

That is no longer the case.

He might not be the Twins' long-term solution in center field, but Mastroianni certainly could find himself starting the April 1 opener against the Detroit Tigers at Target Field. "All of a sudden it got very real, very quick, that this is a real possibility," Mastroianni said of winning the job.

While Benson did not play in the big leagues last season and Hicks has never played above Class AA, Mastroianni saw action in 77 games in 2012 with the Twins. He hit .252 with three home runs, 17 RBI and 21 stolen bases, tying him for third-most in the AL among rookies.

Mastroianni, 27, played 34 games in right field (27 starts), 25 in left field (10 starts) and four in center field, proving his versatility and ability to come off the bench.

Mastroianni had played in only one big-league game before last season -- he made an appearance with Toronto in 2011 before being claimed off waivers by the Twins in February 2012 -- so last year's experience was invaluable in getting him ready for this chance.

"The biggest thing is the focus and intensity that these guys bring on a daily basis for 183 days," Mastroianni said of the difference between playing in the majors and minors. "In the minor leagues, you have a tendency to wander. ... You kind of say, 'Oh, I had a bad game, whatever.' But you get up here and you can't afford to do that. You need to be completely locked in and focused on a daily basis from inning one to inning nine or past that. That's what I learned."

Actually, Mastroianni learned plenty in a season that he described as a "monster roller coaster." He opened 2012 at Double-A New Britain and impressed few with his hitting.

It became almost comical.

On a cold and rainy day in New Hampshire, Mastroianni stepped to the plate and, well, let's let him tell the story.

"I was hitting like .120 at best," he said. "There might have been a hundred people in the stands. My girlfriend and her family were there. I get in the batter's box and the first pitch I swung through it. All of a sudden this guy yells out, 'Hey Mastroianni, my blood alcohol content is higher than your batting average.'

"Someone comes up with something like that you just kind of have to step out and giggle. The umpire was laughing, the catcher was laughing, I'm laughing. That was pretty good. I kind of turned around and smiled at the guy. He was laughing. You can't get mad at stuff like that."

Perhaps this outlook helped him.

Mastroianni went 5-for-35 and was hitting .143 in nine games at New Britain when he was promoted to Triple-A Rochester on April 14. Logic would say if Mastroianni struggled at Double-A that his performance did not improve at a higher level. That would be incorrect.

Mastroianni hit .346 with two doubles, two triples and 10 stolen bases in 19 games with the Red Wings causing the Twins to take notice. When struggling third baseman Danny Valencia was demoted to Rochester on May 10, Mastroianni got the call.

He stuck with the Twins the rest of the year, but late in the season suffered a torn tendon and fractured a bone on the middle finger in his left hand when he hit a bat as he scored on a slide against Cleveland.

Mastroianni admitted that early on he thought he was blowing a great chance at New Britain, but then rode the wave of success that followed at Rochester.

"It was a roller coaster, but it was a great roller coaster and a great experience," he said. "I learned a lot by watching the game and watching some of these guys go about their work. From Denard, to (Josh) Willingham, to Jamey (Carroll), to Joe (Mauer). Watching these guys go about their business. You really see what it takes to play in the big leagues and be successful there. It's a lot more than people realize."

Mastroianni acknowledges he has been thinking about this chance to win a regular job since finding out Revere had been traded.

"It's very exciting," he said. "It's been a weird offseason trying to deal with that. Trying to keep myself calm and focused, but wanting spring training to get here and wanting to get this thing going. Trying to go out there and prove to (manager Ron Gardenhire) and Terry (Ryan, the Twins' general manager) and the rest of the coaching staff and front office that I can do this.

"That I can be productive and help us win baseball games in that role. Not just being the utility guy and pinch running and starting occasionally. It was exciting (thinking about that), but now that we're here and we're getting ramped up some of the nerves are starting to kick in because you want to make that right impression right out of the gate.

" ... A year ago I was sitting here and just meeting guys for the first time and having spent one day in the big leagues with Toronto. A year later, you have a chance to be the starting center fielder for the Minnesota Twins. This is a team with such a rich history of center fielders. There's quiet a bit of pressure. I'm trying to just do my best and not think about it."

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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