By a quirk of scheduling irony, Justin Morneau is back in Toronto for the third-year anniversary of the concussion that he sustained on July 7, 2010. It’s left to wonder what Morneau may have accomplished by now, had the play at second base transpired routinely, ending with a simple slide and a trot to the dugout rather than leading to more than a year of recovery.
Watch: Blue Jays 4, Twins 0
The Minnesota first baseman has recovered full health for the first time since then, at a time when Twins management faces an imminent decision about his future with the team. His six-year $80-million contract expires at the end of the season and Morneau says there have been no talks about an extension. If the Twins let him play out the contract they risk losing him as a free agent. If they intend to let him go, logically he’ll be shopped actively in advance of the July 31 trade deadline.
With the Blue Jays in last place in the AL East, the Twins fourth in the AL Central, Mark Buehrle (5-5) pitched seven shutout innings, Jose Bautista hit homer No. 20 and an RBI single, and Jose Reyes delivered a two-run double for a 4-0 Toronto victory. Morneau, leading the Twins with 50 RBIs, came up with two on base in the first inning but Buehrle, who’d held him to 11 hits in 55 prior career at-bats, got him on a called strike three and finished the inning unscathed by fanning Trevor Plouffe.
The all-star break arrives a week from Monday – the rosters for the game are to be announced on Saturday, with Bautista and relievers Brett Cecil and Steve Delabar possible nominees – and general managers will be talking trade as they gather in New York.
The Twins have a strong corps of young unproven talent on the way. On the other hand, Morneau is a proven run producer. Which way will they go with Morneau?
“It’s there but most of it is out of my control, so until I am presented with an extension, or until I am traded, I am here and happy to be here,” said Morneau, 32, of New Westminster, B.C. “If there’s a move that can make this organization better, that’s part of the game too.”
Morneau's contract includes a clause allowing him to reject a trade to a limited number of teams, but not all. It's hard to imagine him in another uniforn – “I agree,” he says – though Toronto is a long-rumoured ultimate destination for a player known as a “proud Canadian … It’s always been a big deal for him to come up here and play,” says his manager, Ron Gardenhire.
Drafted in the third round in 1999, he became a regular in the second half of the 2004 season and MVP in 2006 with career highs in homers (34) and RBIs (130). In 2010, on his way to a prodigious season with a .345 batting average, 18 homers and 56 RBIs, he slid through the second-base bag trying to break up a double play at Rogers Centre, his head banging into shortstop John McDonald’s knee.
Morneau would fall instantly and helplessly into the dark, confusing world of concussion.
“It was unfortunate but I’ve learned to appreciate things a lot more,” he said. “I’ve been able to slow down, enjoy my family, as opposed to every day being all-consumed by baseball, and taking losses home with me. Obviously winning is important, baseball is important, but there has to be a separation between at-the-field and away-from-the-field. You can drive yourself crazy taking everything home with you.”
The lengthy recovery limited him to 69 games in 2011. In 2012, bother by a wrist problem, he appear in 134 games.
After a promising spring this year, the former American League MVP endured a stretch of 168 at-bats between April 28 and June 19 without a homer. Still, he continued driving in runs, 23 in May to rank fourth in the league that month. The power’s resurfaced lately, including a pair of homers in Thursday’s loss to the Yankees, a team that coincidentally may be in the market for a first baseman.
Hours before game time at Rogers Centre on Friday, he performed a drill meant to induce more power. By walking a couple of steps toward a tee before hitting the ball, he was attempting to reinforce the rhythm of the natural swing and judging success by gaging the backspin on the ball.
“Almost looks like I’m Happy Gilmore hitting golf balls,” he joked, before the game.
The Twins have lost six straight and nine of 11, outscored 79-52. No one in the batting order Friday has more than eight home runs on the season. Buehrle extended a personal scoreless streak against them to 35-2/3 innings, dating to 2011, with his ninth quality start of the season.
The Blue Jays won their fourth game in 12, following an 11-game winning streak.
Decision time looms for both teams.