MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Minnesota Twins were nearing the inauguration of Target Field, and soft-spoken slugger Jason Kubel had an eyebrow-raising message for power-hitting teammates Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer.
Kubel, it turns out, was determined to hit the first home run in the new ballpark.
“I told Morny and Cuddy before the game that you guys better do it right away before I get up there,” Kubel said after homering in the seventh inning of Minnesota’s home-opening win over Boston on Monday. “I gave them a couple of at-bats. Now I’m thrilled that I did it. It’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”
Kubel is polite but about as quiet as any player the Twins have, with a beard and a half-smiling, almost sleepy expression.
His brash prediction, even in fun around friends, sounded decidedly un-Kubel-like. Even though he’s coming off a career season with 28 homers, 103 RBIs and a .300 batting average, the 27-year-old Kubel is easily overlooked in a Twins lineup highlighted by former AL MVPs Joe Mauer and Morneau.
Cuddyer hit 32 home runs himself last year, an outgoing, polished leader in the clubhouse who is the longest-tenured player on the team. Even Jim Thome, who will spell Kubel as the designated hitter and give him an opportunity to play left field in place of Delmon Young, has a much higher profile as a bench player with 565 career home runs.
That’s all right with Kubel, who was one of the organization’s top prospects before a severe knee injury knocked him out for the 2005 season and delayed his progress toward establishing his presence in the middle of Minnesota’s lineup.
Even he can’t fully describe what finally clicked for him last year.
“It’s hard to put a finger on it,” Kubel said. “Everything just worked out. If I knew, that would make it easy every year.”
Whatever the formula, Kubel has found his confidence. And so have the Twins.
They’re like kids on Christmas as they get settled in their new home, but this is a deep and talented roster with high hopes and expectations.
After pitching six smooth innings for the first victory at Target Field, right-hander Carl Pavano was asked about the quality of this Twins team.
“I think we’re great,” Pavano said, unflinching.
Even Mauer, the lowest of low-key personalities, seemed more exuberant than usual after the 5-2 victory over the Red Sox that lifted their record to 6-2. That was tied for the best in the American League entering Tuesday. The Twins had the day off, their first break in the schedule since opening day.
“I tried to stay on an even keel and remind myself we had a ballgame to play,” Mauer said as he reflected on the festivities surrounding Minnesota’s formal return to the outdoors after 28 years in the Metrodome.
He knows this year’s team, the most expensive in franchise history with a payroll over $97 million, has the potential to be special even without the new ballpark sparkle.
The early work by new closer Jon Rauch is the most encouraging development for the Twins, who were forced to replace four-time All-Star Joe Nathan when he hurt his elbow and needed season-ending surgery in March. Rauch has converted all five of his save attempts, leading the major leagues.
“I’ve always been confident I can do the job. I think every guy down in that bullpen is confident they can do the job,” Rauch said. “I just happen to be the one they named to do it.”