MINNEAPOLIS -- If the White Sox needed a reminder how much they missed having a left-handed bat earlier this season, the last two games without Justin Morneau confirmed it.
Forced out of the lineup because of National League rules, Morneau on Friday returned to a White Sox lineup that struggled in his absence in a pair of losses at Wrigley Field. It’s the same issue that has dogged the White Sox throughout the regular season until Morneau was activated two weeks ago after Adam LaRoche unexpectedly retired.
Friday’s contest also marked Morneau’s first regular season appearance at Target Field against his former since he was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013.
“When he’s not in there it really changes a lot of the dynamic for us of where guys are, how deep your lineup is, as well as just having a really good left-hander in the middle of it, a consistent guy who not only can hit, but takes pitches, walks, is a threat and he’s not a half bad guy,” manager Robin Ventura said. “He’s back here and I think guys are happy for him that he’s back here as well.”
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There’s little doubt the White Sox missed Morneau at Wrigley Field when they combined for 10 hits and were outscored 11-2 by the Cubs in two losses. Even though he’s only two weeks removed from the disabled list, Morneau has already offered the White Sox the balance they desperately needed in the middle of the order since LaRoche called it quits.
Morneau, who had elbow surgery in December and then rushed to get back as quickly as he could after he signed in June, likes how his swing has progressed so far. Perhaps the one upside to his absence -- Morneau said the two-day break has him feeling even better as the White Sox opened a three-game series at the Minnesota Twins.
“The swing feels good,” Morneau said. “A couple days off helped my body recover a little and sort of recharge the battery coming in here. I feel I can go up there and battle, like I can put at-bats together, guys in scoring position all that stuff. It’s fun to be out there in situations, that’s what I kind of enjoy the most.
"The amount of work it takes to get ready isn’t the fun part, but stepping into the batter’s box and battling those guys is really all we play for. I’m comfortable doing that, and it’s good.”
Even with the addition of Todd Frazier’s team-leading 29 home runs, the White Sox offense has only shown slight improvement this season in part because the team was so right-handed heavy until Morneau was activated on July 15. The White Sox entered Friday having scored four runs per game, which is up from 3.84 in 2015. The team carried a .699 OPS against right-handers into the game.
Even though LaRoche had the worst season of his life in 2015, the White Sox were short-handed once he retired. The original plan had been a rotation between Melky Cabrera-Austin Jackson-Avisail Garcia and LaRoche between two outfield spots and the DH role. Instead, Garcia was forced into full-time action and Ventura often had to bat Melky Cabrera in the fifth spot to break up a run of four straight right-handed bats in the middle of the order.
Despite improved production from Frazier and Brett Lawrie at second, the White Sox have been inconsistent all season. Thursday’s loss was the 49th time in 102 games they scored three or fewer runs. Ventura said the need for a lefty bat implored the White Sox to take a risk and sign Morneau without knowing what they’ll receive.
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“I think that’s the reason why we ended up going on a limb a little bit and going with him knowing we’d have to wait to have him in our lineup,” Ventura said. “Once we lost Adam we became very right-hand dominant. It’s tough to have for Jose and those guys to be in there and not have that left-right combo that you’d like to have.”
Morneau received the welcome he expected from the Twins fanbase. Even though he now wears a White Sox uniform, Morneau was received well. The American League Most Valuable Player in 2006, Morneau played for the Twins from 2003-13. His wife’s family lives locally and Morneau said he spends part of every offseason here.
“You never know when you go to a rival or play for a team in the same division that we battled against for so many years here, and to go on the other side of it, some people’s feeling might not be as warm as you’d hope them to be,” Morneau said. “But for the most people have been great to me and I don’t think I’d really expect anything else.”