CLEVELAND -- The first 100 homers came easy. Or at least, Justin Morneau made them look easy. Once the basher from British Columbia figured it all out in that transcendent 2006 season -- the one that earned him the American League MVP Award acclaim and, oh yeah, helped the Minnesota Twins win 96 games -- the 100th homer, which came in a three-blast outburst one night in July 2007, was inevitable and, it seemed, only the beginning. The next 100 homers? Well, they have been a decidedly more exhausting experience for Morneau and Minnesota.
Two concussions in a 14-month span, as well as four surgical operations on his wrist, knee, neck and foot, threatened to expeditiously extinguish Morneau's career. And the Twins, in a related development, went from the class of the AL Central to a 99-loss outfit in 2011, with .500 again far out of sight here in '12. So when Morneau connected on No. 200 on Monday night at Progressive Field, the sight was a joy for all those who know how hard he's worked, how much he cares and how far he's come. And Morneau himself felt a distinct sense of accomplishment that wasn't as apparent when he hit No. 100. "I think I'm able to appreciate something like that a lot more right now," he said, "than maybe I would have a few years ago." Mere months ago, Morneau openly questioned how long he could put up with the headaches and the setbacks in his concussion recovery. He wondered how long he'd have to endure pain so frequent that even the basic task of watching television on the couch proved difficult. "It was just the reality of the situation," he said. "At that point, I wasn't sure what the future would bring. And still, anything can happen." The difference now is that Morneau's name is penciled into the Twins' lineup at first base, daily and without hesitation, and he's responded with a respectable .275 batting average, .335 on-base percentage and .481 slugging percentage entering play on Tuesday -- punctuated by the .361 average and 1.009 OPS he's compiled in the second half. "I don't think too many people like the game and enjoy playing it as much as he does," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "To see him back healthy again and having a good time playing, that's pretty good for us. He's a big part of our team. But more than anything else, he truly is our leader. It's hard to be a leader when you're hurt and in the training room and not playing. But when you're out on the field and doing what he's doing, you're a leader." So now, the Twins have something closer to the asset they assumed when they locked in the "M&M Boys" -- Morneau and hometown product Joe Mauer -- for the long haul. Both are back on the field, and, while neither is back to his MVP impact of old, both have been very productive. And because they're paired with free-agent acquisition Josh Willingham in the middle of the order, the Twins have a dangerous trio at their disposal. It's the primary reason the Twins, through Monday, had scored the most second-half runs of any team in baseball. Alas, it's elsewhere that the Twins leave quite a bit to be desired, and it remains to be seen if they ultimately trade away any members of the trio to address their shaky starting-pitching outlook. The non-waiver Trade Deadline came and went, and the only move made by the Twins was to part with free-agent-to-be Francisco Liriano for a pair of prospects. They kept Denard Span, they kept Jared Burton and they kept Glen Perkins. Carl Pavano was hurt, so they had to keep him. And yes, they kept Willingham and Morneau. But given the organization's glaring need for upper-level arms, one would not be shocked to see the Twins shop either Willingham, under wraps through 2014 at a reasonable rate, or Morneau, who will make $14 million in 2013 before becoming a free agent, this winter. And with the hot-hitting Chris Parmelee looming as a first-base option down in Triple-A Rochester, Morneau, in particular, might be an appealing trade candidate, though there would obviously be quite a bit of emotion involved. "If they feel moves need to be made, sometimes you have to put the personal feelings and personal relationships aside and do what's best for the organization," Morneau said. "My preference is to stay here and play here for a long time. But that's not up to me, and sometimes your options change as you go along." If that is an option the Twins explore in the offseason, they could encounter a ripe market, because the current outlook for free-agent first-base choices -- Lance Berkman and his ailing knee, Carlos Pena and Casey Kotchman and their ailing averages, etc. -- is dicey, at best. That's a situation the Twins will have to consider at a later date. For now, their solid second half has allowed them to climb out of the AL Central cellar, and they have an eye on third place. It might not sound like much, but it's a slow reclamation of respectability for a Twins team in transition. It's a credit to the 31-year-old Morneau that his own part in that reclamation has played out so well in recent months. After being resigned to DH duties and enduring a sluggish showing at the plate early in the season, he has begun to show serious signs of his old self. He's also taking better care of his body, forgoing candy and pizza for health food. Before batting practice, Morneau and Mauer spent a good 20 minutes cutting up fruits and vegetables and blending them together to make a bright purple concoction ripe with nutrients. One teammate who had once sampled the drink said it tasted like "compost ... like grass clippings." Hey, whatever works. And finally, Morneau's going to work on the field enough to find his comfort zone. "Obviously, it's easy to have fun when you're winning," he said. "But to be able to just find joy in putting on the uniform again is something that I'm trying to do more. Because you never know. A lot of times when you take the uniform off for the last time, it's not your decision. There are very few guys who get to make that choice."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.