Twins’ Hicks treasures debut despite 3 Ks

Published 8:10 am Wednesday, April 3, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — With Detroit’s dominant right-hander Justin Verlander staring down at him from the mound, Aaron Hicks dug in the batter’s box with two strikes against him.

The curveball came, and the Minnesota rookie took a swing, whiffing badly with his bat way out in front of the ball.

No, the sight of the 2008 first-round draft pick’s first major league at-bat wasn’t pretty. The 23-year-old center fielder struck out the next two times as well on opening day, and the Twins lost to the Tigers 4-2.

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Hicks looked disappointed afterward, but he wasn’t discouraged. There still was plenty to treasure from his inaugural performance, with his family in attendance at frosty Target Field all the way from Southern California and the opportunity to meet his favorite player before the game. Talking to Torii Hunter was what he will remember — and the advice he received.

“Enjoy the moment and just enjoy baseball in general,” Hunter told Hicks. “Have fun and play relaxed.”

If Hicks can become the player Hunter was for nearly a decade here, the Twins will be happy. From all accounts, Hicks could be even better.

“This guy has all the potential possible. He’s just got to put it together and get those at-bats and get that experience, and I think he’ll be fine,” said Hunter, the new right fielder for the Tigers. “He has all the intangibles. … Just give him a little time. He’s pretty much a five-tool player. He’s a switch-hitter who can hit for power. He’s not just a switch-hitter who’s poking the ball.”

Hicks hit .286 with 13 home runs, 11 triples and 32 steals last season for Double-A New Britain, giving the Twins confidence they could trade both Denard Span and Ben Revere for much-needed future starting pitchers over the winter and hand Hicks the job without any Triple-A experience, let alone in the majors.

He had to earn the spot in spring training, but his three-home run game in an exhibition last month was probably all the proof he needed. Ranked as the best defensive outfielder with the best outfield throwing arm in the Twins system by Baseball America magazine for 2013, Hicks already had polished fielding. The offense has been the final piece of his game to emerge, a typical progression for any prospect.

What excites the Twins as much as any of his abilities, too, is discipline at the plate. Hicks had a .379 career on-base percentage in the minors, an attribute that Hunter didn’t have in his time in the heart of the Minnesota batting order from 1999-2007.

So there Hicks was, leading off in the first inning on a windy 35-degree Monday afternoon against perhaps the best pitcher in baseball. The welcome-to-the-show matchup hardly seemed fair, but the Twins didn’t make any excuses for him.

“I think that he accepted the challenge,” designated hitter Ryan Doumit said. “He’s going to be a very, very good player in his career. It was a little bit of a tough draw, but I like the way he goes about his business. … If you want to be the best you’ve got to play against the best, and Verlander’s one of the best so there’s not a better way for him to get his feet wet.”

Hicks made contact in his fourth at-bat with a groundout and drew a five-pitch walk in the eighth inning.

“Just too anxious. Trying to get that first hit. I just exposed myself,” Hicks said, describing his mindset against Verlander. “I was trying as hard as I can to get that first one instead of just staying patient and doing what I know I can.”

Next time, he ought to be more prepared.

“Just because day one didn’t go that great, doesn’t mean that day two, day three, on and on throughout the season, won’t be better,” Hicks said. “This is all about learning about what happened on your first day and being able to come back from it.”