Originally posted on Fox Sports North  |  Last updated 1/28/12
MINNEAPOLIS In 2008, Twins first baseman Justin Morneau played in all 162 regular-season games plus a Game 163. He was Minnesota's iron man after having played 157 games in the previous two seasons.Since then, however, Morneau has not finished a season healthy. In 2009, it was a back injury. The 2010 season was cut short after 81 games due to a concussion. And last year, Morneau suffered from multiple ailments, including a strained wrist, a pinched nerve in his neck and recurring concussion symptoms.The injuries have been out of Morneau's control, but they've certainly frustrated the 2006 American League MVP. Minnesota will need a healthy Morneau in 2012 if it wants to bounce back from its 99-loss season in 2011."The big question is our health," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said this weekend at the team's annual winter fan event. "If Morneau's there, he's my first baseman."Morneau suffered a concussion on July 7, 2010, while sliding into second base against the Blue Jays. During the play, Morneau's head hit John McDonald's knee. He didn't play the rest of the season.Prior to the injury, Morneau was having an All-Star-caliber season perhaps even an MVP season. He was batting .345 while slugging .618. He had hit 18 homers and driven in 56 runs in 81 games. The following season, however, Morneau was a shell of his former self. In 69 games, he batted .227 and slugged .333. He had four homers and 30 RBIs and never looked fully comfortable at the plate. He re-aggravated his concussion while diving for a ball at first base and didn't play at all in September.Morneau, who will turn 31 in May, said he looks back at the way he was playing prior to his 2010 concussion as something to strive for. "I try to use it as a positive and try to think of it when my swing doesn't feel like it's going to be or if there's questions about whether I can get back to that point," Morneau said. "And I think it wasn't that long away I was at that point and I was doing well and was in the top 10 in a lot of offensive categories. There were a lot of things going right, so when I kind of need to remind myself that it can be good again and it will be good again, I think back to that."Spring 2011 was an uncertainty, as it was Morneau's first time back from the concussion. Now, he's more than a season removed from the initial impact, but he's still working his way back from other injuries."Last year, I was more hopeful," he said. "I don't know if there's really a big difference between hopeful and optimistic. Hopeful's kind of wishing everything's going to be really good. I'm optimistic. I think I'm looking forward to it and feel a little more confident that it's going to be better."The pinched nerve in Morneau's neck caused some numbness in his left arm. He also had the same arm in a cast for six weeks to stabilize his strained wrist. While Morneau's neck feels better after having surgery on it last season, he said Friday that he still can't feel his left index finger."They said it could be up to two years," Morneau said. "It's not good when you start to grab hot lids on stovetops. You hold it for four or five seconds and then go, Oh, it's hot.' You probably shouldn't do that."It's possible Morneau could play more games as the Twins' designated hitter, but he is determined to again be the team's everyday first baseman. "Well, that's my goal. I feel like I can help this team the most at first," he said. "I said this before, if I'm not healthy enough to play first base then I probably shouldn't be DHing, either. If there's that much risk for me playing first base and just diving for a ball, then the risk of being hit (by a pitch) is probably a lot higher, and the long-term effects would probably be a lot worse."It's been a long offseason for Morneau. He's slowly eased his way back into baseball activities, admitting that his swing still needs some work. He also had some allergy testing done and found out he's mildly allergic to gluten, which means his diet has changed a bit this winter. He gets headaches "every once in a while," but said it's tough to tell whether they're concussion related or just normal headaches.The Twins and Morneau are still in the wait-and-see mode for 2012, and they're also hoping catcher Joe Mauer is back to form. Minnesota's two stars and former MVPs are in the primes of their career but they're not getting any younger."I'm not 38 going on 39, I'm 30 going on 31. So it's not like I'm in that danger zone where everything slows down," Morneau said. "There's still a lot of time for me to become that player that I expect out of myself."
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