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Justin Morneau decides to relax

Justin Morneau knows how much the Minnesota Twins depend on him, which is why he has long believed that he could not afford to take a day off of work once spring training started in late February.

After a back injury forced him to watch his teammates rally for the AL Central division title without him in the final month of last season, Morneau may have finally come to the realization that he can't afford not to.

"I'm finally going to let myself relax and realize that spring training doesn't matter," Morneau said in January at TwinsFest. "It's just about getting ready for the season. It doesn't matter how many hits you get in spring training. I'm going to be playing first base. I don't need to be fully ready to play that first game of spring training, I need to be fully ready to play the first game of the season."

For years, Morneau has been one of the first Twins to report to spring training in Fort Myers, Fla. The former AL MVP is famous among his teammates for his 7 a.m. daily hitting drills in the batting cages, a ritual he uses to get his powerful swing ready for the regular season.

Once the real games begin, he almost never sits out. He played all 163 games in 2008 and it finally started catching up to him last year. He missed the final 19 games last season because of a back injury.

The Twins could tell that Morneau was overworked, so they couldn't be happier that he was one of the last players to report to spring training this year. He finally showed up at Hammond Stadium on Friday, one day before the team's first full-squad workout.

"He knows he's got a long spring training and a long season. It's good that he's taking his time," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said Friday in Fort Myers.

With the Twins behind in the division race in August, Morneau refused to take a day off to rest. As the season wore on, his body wore down.

He hit .220 with just three homers in 22 games in August and then batted .077 with one home run in 11 games in September before being placed on the disabled list with a stress fracture in his lower back on Sept. 15.

So he had to watch his teammates mount yet another thrilling charge to the crown.

The injury didn't require surgery, just plenty of rest for a player who has always viewed that as a four-letter word.

"To not be able to run out there with them when they were doing so well, it's one of the hardest things I'll ever do," Morneau said.

He sat on the bench grinding his teeth and begging Gardenhire to insert him as a pinch-hitter in key moments.

"Morneau grabbed his bat in the last two weeks and looked at me and said 'I can do this' at least three or four times," Gardenhire said. "'I could take this swing, Gardy.' At least three or four times.

"I said, 'Sit down. Put the bat down.' He was chomping at the bit. That last game, I looked at his face, you could see it on the bench. That was hard. That was really hard," Gardenhire said.

Somehow, without their cleanup hitter, the Twins still managed to overtake the Detroit Tigers for the division title. But they were swept by the heavy-hitting New York Yankees in the playoffs, and Morneau went into the offseason knowing that the team can't contend for the big prize without him.

"I think he's going to listen to me now," Gardenhire said. "I think we all see. I learned a little bit from it and I think he has too. We'll have to take of ourselves a little bit. Lou Gehrig is safe. His record is safe. Don't have to worry about that."

Right fielder Michael Cuddyer filled in capably at first base for the final month last year, and the Twins signed Jim Thome in the offseason, so they have a few more options now when the big guy needs a breather.

"It's tough. The time when you can take days off is April, May and June when your body feels good," Morneau said. "So it's hard. You feel good and you don't need a day off. But those are the days that you take off early and it will help you late."

He will also cut out some of those early-morning batting drills in spring training as well in hopes of saving his energy for when it counts.

"I think Justin probably sees a little where he's at," Gardenhire said. "All these swings he takes per day, early morning, all that cage stuff. He's figured it out he's got to limit himself with how beat up he's gotten toward the end."