NEW YORK -- Justin Morneau found out he was being dropped to fifth in the Minnesota Twins' lineup, allowing AL Player of the Week Josh Willingham to fit between him and Joe Mauer, and made a suggestion: He wanted to play first base for the first time this season.
"I thought that was pretty cool," Ron Gardenhire said Monday night before the Twins played at the New York Yankees.
Relegated to designated hitter duty as he recovers from an assortment of injuries, including a concussion, that limited him to just 69 games last year and 81 in 2010, Morneau says he's feeling well enough to make the move to the field -- and Gardenhire didn't disagree.
The 2006 AL MVP was switched to the DH role after starting slowly in spring training and he will make a gradual return to first base. Gardenhire had talked about giving Morneau a start at first in the upcoming weekend series at the Tampa Bay Rays.
"I think the longer I wait the more difficult it will be to just find that rhythm," Morneau said. "Obviously the goal is to be playing every day or close to every day by the end of the year."
Morneau will get a day off Tuesday, when the Yankees send CC Sabathia to the mound, Gardenhire said.
For now, an occasional turn at first by Morneau gives Gardenhire greater flexibility with his lineup. Primarily he will be able to give Mauer some days at DH -- the first coming Monday night. Mauer played only 82 games last season in part because of soreness and weakness in his legs. Entering Monday night, he had played six games at catcher and three at first base. Serving as the designated hitter will give the 2009 MVP a chance to remain in the lineup and get some rest.
"It's a little bit of a break off your legs," Gardenhire said of the DH spot.
Keeping the M&M Boys in the lineup is crucial for the Twins coming off a season in which they lost 99 games. Morneau is hitting just .206 with a homer and two RBIs during Minnesota's 2-7 start. Mauer is hitting .242 with a homer and five RBIs.
But Willingham is tearing it up, batting .419 with four homers and seven RBIs. He hit .455 (10 for 22) last week with three homers, four RBIs and six runs scored. And Gardenhire wanted to move him into the cleanup spot while splitting the left-handed hitting Mauer and Morneau.
According to STATS LLC, this is the first time since April 4, 2008, that Morneau and Mauer have started and not hit consecutively in the order, a span of 331 starts.
"I really don't think anything of it," Willingham said. "We'll go on and play nine innings like we always do."
Also, general manager Terry Ryan said starter Nick Blackburn is day to day. Blackburn felt a cramp in the back of the shoulder Saturday against the Texas Rangers, and he left in the sixth inning. He will play catch Wednesday and then, if all goes well, he will have a bullpen session Friday. The most he should miss is one start, Gardenhire said.
Left-handed reliever Glen Perkins had an MRI exam on Monday that showed some tenderness in his forearm. He will remain back in Minnesota for two more days before deciding if any further action is needed, Ryan said.