MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Minnesota Twins outfielder Matt Lawton is sick of hearing about it.
He no longer wants to talk about June 9, 1999, when a pitch from Cincinnati's Dennys Reyes went up and in -- right into his eye, fracturing the socket in several places and putting him on the disabled list for six weeks.
But Lawton, who was named to the All-Star team for the first time in his career, can't avoid questions about the accident. He's bounced back from his worst season to the point where he's not just a token All-Star.
''I just want to put all that stuff behind me,'' Lawton said. ''Getting hit in the eye last year was tough to come back from. I just think that so far, I've shown people I'm not afraid to get back in the box and I'm definitely back.''
At the All-Star break, Lawton was hitting .330, with 57 RBIs, 51 runs scored and 19 stolen bases.
In Tuesday's All-Star game, Lawton went 1-for-2 with an RBI, a stolen base and a run scored after replacing Bernie Williams in center field in the sixth inning of the American League's 6-3 win.
Last season's injury wasn't the only factor that sunk Lawton. He was having a lousy year before it happened and didn't get much better when he returned from the disabled list.
''Matt had a bad year last year. He didn't work as hard over the winter,'' said Twins manager Tom Kelly. ''He had a very poor season to begin with, then he got hit in the face. I think he learned a lot from last year.''
Lawton, 28, doesn't dispute that assessment. ''Just because I was hit in the eye, that wasn't the beginning of the bad year,'' Lawton said. ''I was bad before I got hit in the eye and I was even worse afterwards.''
In 1998, Lawton, in just his second year as a starter, hit .278 with 21 home runs, 77 RBIs and 91 runs scored. He thought he'd arrived as a big-time major leaguer.
''It was one of those things were I was coming off a 1998 season when I'd done well and I probably really needed a reality check because right when you think you have baseball licked, there's always something like that that will happen to you,'' Lawton said. ''And I'll be the first to admit I was one of those guys that thought hey, just because I did it in '98, I'd do it in '99, but hey, it doesn't work out that way.''
He was hitting just .258 with five home runs and 26 RBIs when he was hit in the eye and finished the season with a .259 average, seven homers and 54 RBIs in 118 games.
''Last year, Matt had a hard time staying back on the ball. He'd roll over on it, hit it weakly to the right side,'' said Twins hitting coach Scott Ulger. ''Then he was injured and that led to picking up some bad habits.''
After the wretched 1999 season, Lawton knew he'd have to change. On a team that had 14 rookies on the roster last season, and with no chance to compete for the postseason, no one's job was secure.
''I worked real hard in the offseason and I really wanted to prove to myself that I deserved to play in the major leagues,'' Lawton said. ''I did stuff in the offseason to give myself a chance to play 162 games.''
His plan didn't immediately pay off this year in spring training. He was struggling mightily at the plate and Kelly and Ulger could see how hard Lawton was working.
First, Kelly told Lawton he would be given the chance to be the everyday left fielder and the No. 3 hitter. Then, Ulger and coach Paul Molitor worked on getting the kinks out of Lawton's swing.
Kelly said it wasn't as if he challenged Lawton to produce or face a future in the minors, but he made it clear that Lawton could play a key role as a stable veteran on the young Twins.
''I think in the grand scheme of things, players realize, or should realize, what their role is. Matty's been around the block here four-five years. It's time for him to step up and show leadership,'' Kelly said he told Lawton in March.
Now Lawton's one of the few bright spots in another miserable season of Twins baseball.
''Matty's a top-notch player. You're going to see him do well for a long time in the league,'' said teammate Ron Coomer. ''He can steal bases, he can hit the ball, he can make a big catch. He's just been a real consistent player and that's really what our team is all about.''
Lawton said his preseason goal was to hit a consistent level, but he admits he would like to hit more balls over the fence. He had six at the All-Star break.
''I really think homers will pick up in the second half, because teams will pitch me a little bit different,'' he said.
Even if he doesn't start hitting home runs -- the yardstick by which today's superstars are measured -- Lawton, if he plays as well the rest of the season, will be one of the few truly dangerous hitters in the Twins' lineup.
''He's given us a presence in the No. 3 hole in the lineup that any team would like to have,'' said general manager Terry Ryan.
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