Blue Jays, Twins primed for season opener
Justin Morneau appears ready to make up for lost time due to a concussion he suffered last season. In February, Jose Bautista was given 65 million reasons to prove he's more than a one-year wonder.
Ready to play his first game since July, Morneau and the Minnesota Twins begin their bid for a third consecutive American League Central title Friday night at Toronto, where Bautista is again expected to lead a high-powered Blue Jays' offence.
Despite winning a division title in 2010, there was a certain lament for the Twins as they played the entire second half of the season without Morneau and were swept out of the division series for the second straight year after going 94-68.
Morneau, the 2006 AL MVP from New Westminster, B.C., never fully recovered from being accidentally kneed in the head by Blue Jays infielder John McDonald while sliding to break up a double play in a July 7 game at Toronto, unable to be completely free of post-concussion symptoms. Morneau had been enjoying a stellar season, batting .345 in 81 games with 18 homers and 56 runs batted in.
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire decided on putting Morneau in the opening day lineup, looking beyond the slugger's .152 average in 10 spring training games as he eased him back into play.
"He'll tell you that he's getting closer," Gardenhire said. "There's been a couple times he really looked like he was on the ball.
"In Atlanta, it looked like he was lifting it a little bit. That's just from not getting him on the field enough so he can get his swing down."
Morneau will augment a lineup that also features Joe Mauer (.327 average, nine HRs, 75 RBIs) and left-fielder Delmon Young, who will try to follow a breakout season in which he had 21 HRs and 112 RBIs while batting .298.
Danny Valencia hit .311 in 85 games as a rookie and Gardenhire will again have veteran slugger Jim Thome, who is 11 homers shy of 600 after hitting 25 last year.
Morneau hit .400 with three homers in 15 at-bats in four games against the Blue Jays last year. He is 3 for 7 with two doubles versus Blue Jays scheduled starter Ricky Romero (14-9, 3.73 ERA).
While Morneau has a proven track record as a hitter, Bautista enters 2011 trying to create one. A middling outfielder who never had more than 16 homers in any of his previous six seasons, Bautista hit 54 in 2010 to set a franchise record, pacing a Toronto attack that set a team record with 257 en route to an 85-77 finish that was only good for fourth place in the deep AL East.
Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos decided to buy in with Bautista, signing him to a five-year, $65 million US contract after successfully unloading centre-fielder Vernon Wells' contract in an off-season trade with the Los Angeles Angels.
"He'll have down months," Anthopoulos said. "He might have a year where he doesn't perform all that well.
"But you're buying into this for the long term. You have reason to believe he's going to be great."
Bautista has not been great against Twins scheduled starter Carl Pavano, going 1 for 11 with four strikeouts.
Bautista will also have a larger role in the clubhouse this year with Wells and pitcher Shaun Marcum no longer on the team. First-year manager John Farrell has plenty of power besides Bautista with Adam Lind and Aaron Hill, who combined for 49 homers despite hitting .237 and .205, respectively.
Additionally, the Blue Jays will be breaking in rookie catcher J.P. Arencibia, who was MVP of the Pacific Coast League after hitting .301 with 32 HRs and 85 RBIs for Las Vegas while posting a .626 slugging percentage.
Romero leads a young Blue Jays staff that will feature four starters 26 years old or younger. The third-year left-hander increased his win total by one in 2010 while pitching 32 more innings and lowering his ERA more than a half-run from his 2009 rookie season.
He won his only start against Minnesota last year and is 2-0 with a 2.78 ERA in three starts versus the Twins.
Pavano went 17-11 with a 3.75 ERA in 2010 for his best season since winning 18 games with Florida in 2004. The right-hander has been healthy for two full years after being plagued by elbow injuries and is eager to build on a strong spring.
"Once you've done it once, you can do it again," he told the Twins' official website.
"So taking that mentality a step further will just make you better and improve you. It was not a fluke that we were all successful last year.
"We know what we are capable of doing. We just have to stay confident with it."