Staying out of harm's way

After enduring several ailments during the last year and a half, Twins first baseman Justin Morneau seems to be ready to put up some nice healthy numbers again

The offseason was much kinder this year to Justin Morneau, but just about anything would be easier than the gauntlet of setbacks that faced the Minnesota Twins first baseman in 2004.

Morneau had his appendix removed in October ’04, and, per doctor’s orders, had to shut everything down for a month. Then he caught chickenpox, only to have that followed with a pneumonia chaser.

And just when his immune system caught a break, he was hit with a pitch in the right temple in early April, and spent most of the month on the disabled list with a concussion.

On top of all that, the Twins had fallen well behind the high-flying rival White Sox, while the Minnesota lineup — which was supposed to be buoyed by Morneau and Joe Mauer, the Twins’ version of the “M&M Boys” — was having trouble scoring runs, a condition that would haunt them throughout 2005.

“It was a battle the whole year,” Morneau said. “I started off trying to get my strength back, just trying to get healthy, and then something else comes along.

“The team wasn’t playing well, we weren’t scoring runs, that sort of thing. It kind of wears on you.”

But there hasn’t been near as much drama this offseason.

The 24-year-old slugger said he had a productive winter and came into camp ready to hit. Morneau’s batting average slipped to .239 last year, but he set career highs with 490 at-bats, 22 home runs and 79 RBIs.

“Everything’s good,” Morneau said. “I’m just trying to get my work in, trying to get ready to go. I’m just trying to have a consistent approach at the plate.”

Morneau’s approach this spring caught the attention of Joe Vavra, the team’s new hitting coach.

“He came into camp as the same old Justin Morneau I saw in the minor leagues with the desire and intensity,” said Vavra, who was the team’s minor league field coordinator 2002-05.

Vavra said Morneau came to him early this spring and wanted to set a time when they could work together each day.

“I said, ‘The cage opens at 8 o’clock,’¤” Vavra said. “He said, ‘How about 7:30?’¤” And Morneau has gone to the plate hacking this spring. He’s hitting .381 in 21 at-bats with two home runs and eight RBIs. He hit .308 in three games with Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic, and three of his four hits came in Canada’s 8-6 win over the United States.

Morneau drove in the first run of the Twins’ 4-3 win over the Red Sox on Thursday at Hammond Stadium with a line-drive single to left.

“He goes up there with the intent of doing some damage every time now, which is a good feeling,” Vavra said. “There just doesn’t seem to be any issues with him right now that will hold him back from doing what he needs to do to get to where he feels he needs to be.”

Morneau said he doesn’t have any individual numbers he would like to hit this season — no 30 home runs, 100 RBIs — but he does have one goal in mind. “Playoffs,” Morneau said. “That’s it.”

LOHSE SHARP: Twins starter Kyle Lohse shut down the Boston Red Sox on Thursday, allowing four hits in five scoreless innings. Lohse coaxed a pair of double-play grounders from David Ortiz and did not allow a runner past first base against a lineup of mostly regulars.

“That will get you motivated,” Lohse said. “Those guys are pretty good hitters. It’s good to have that type of competition this time of year to give you a gauge of where you’re at.”

Lohse improved to 3-0 and lowered his ERA to 2.12. Lohse has not allowed any runs in four of his five spring training starts.

“I thought that was my best (start) so far, as far as staying in control of my pitches and not trying to overthrow anything,” Lohse said.

COMING UP: The New York Yankees make their only visit to Fort Myers this spring at 1:05 today. Carlos Silva will start for Minnesota against Randy Johnson. The game is sold out.

The Twins will start Francisco Liriano on Saturday in Sarasota against the Cincinnati Reds and newly acquired pitcher Bronson Arroyo. That game also starts at 1:05.

TWIN BILLS: The Twins improved to 12-11 with Thursday’s win. Minnesota has finished .500 or better in each of the previous six spring seasons. ... Thursday’s win was the Twins’ first win in a one-run game against six losses. ... The Twins had already clinched the 2006 Mayor’s Cup by defeating the Red Sox in their first three meetings this spring. Minnesota won four of five games with Boston. ... Twins catcher Shawn Wooten hit his second home run of the spring in the fifth inning.

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