07/16/07 2:16 PM ET
Twins predict Punto will stump slump
Third baseman hasn't let offensive woes hurt his defense
By Leslie Parker / MLB.com
He keeps the clubhouse loose with jokes, entertains (and sometimes scares) teammates and coaches with his headfirst slides into first base and helps Minnesota secure victories with seemingly impossible plays in the field.
But after having the best offensive year of his career last season and being lauded as one of the Twins' top piranhas, Punto has sunk into a funk at the plate. He's averaging just .212 and already has just 17 fewer strikeouts than he had in all of last season.
But everyone in the clubhouse is cheering for Punto. After he got a two-run triple Sunday, the scene on the bench made it look like he just drove in a run to clinch the pennant.
"The guys were all razzing me," Punto said. "I'm struggling offensively and it's nice to know that the 25 guys are really pulling for me."
The show of support comes in many different ways. Manager Ron Gardenhire has continued to put Punto in the daily lineup, despite his lackluster offense. Torii Hunter has named Punto his "pick to click" for the second half.
"I've got Punto as my pick to click, the reason being is I think he's going to make the adjustment in the second half," Hunter said. "The league has made an adjustment to him from his year last year, and now he just has to catch up with the league. I think he's going to catch up with them in the second half, and I think he's going to be pretty big for us. "
Even reigning American League MVP Justin Morneau knows Punto will eventually turn it on.
"Everyone's pulling for Punto in this clubhouse," Morneau said. "He plays hard every day. He wants to win as hard as anybody, and to see him get a big hit like that, it's huge and hopefully it'll get him going. We need him to come up with those big hits."
One facet of his play that has endeared Punto to his teammates is his defense. He makes extraordinary plays look pedestrian, and what he lacks in offensive consistency he more than makes up for with his dependable defense.
His .977 fielding percentage is tied for second-best among third basemen in the AL who have played at least 25 games. Alex Rodriguez is narrowly leading the AL with a .978 percentage. Only two players in the Majors who have played at least 50 games at third base this season have fewer errors than Punto's four -- Aramis Ramirez of the Cubs and Scott Rolen of the Cardinals both have three.
Although Punto is more than comfortable at third base, he grew up playing shortstop. He repeatedly watched the Ozzie Smith highlight reels that he begged his father to buy and emulated his father, who played shortstop and was drafted by the Boston Red Sox out of high school.
Punto's father, Lou, didn't make it to the Majors. He instead went to college and had a budding career as a rock musician in a band that opened for the Monkees. But Punto's father taught him plenty about the game of baseball, including how to separate his offense from his defense.
"You just have to. It's something I was taught as a young boy from my father. You just can't take it out on the field with you," Punto said. "Believe me, when I was young I would. If I wasn't getting hits, I would go out there and I'd be frustrated. But I'll never forget when my dad reprimanded me about it.
"It's something I've always taken pride in since I've been a professional athlete. Just because I'm not getting hits at the plate doesn't mean I'm going to go out there and put my team at risk by not being 110-percent ready. "
That attitude is exactly why Gardenhire has continued to put Punto in the lineup on an almost daily basis.
"Our team gets pretty fired up with Nicky. We all cheer for him pretty hard. We all understand what he's going through. Some of us have been through those things more than others, and we understand those things," Gardenhire said. "He's not letting one side of the game take the other side down, and that's pretty impressive, that's very professional. We root for him pretty hard, we want him to get going. We know how important he is to this baseball team."
Right now, Punto and hitting coach Joe Vavra are taking a "less is more" approach to break Punto out of his slump. After spending the first half tweaking his swing, working on mechanics and studying incessantly, Punto is to the point where he's just settling into a routine and waiting for the inevitable to happen.
"You can overwork. I do the same routine I do every day. I come here early and I hit in the cage with [Vavra], and I'm going to try to continue to do that," Punto said.
"I can't even put a finger on what it is, because I don't feel awful. I know I'm not hitting very well at all, to say the least, but I don't feel as bad as I'm hitting," Punto said. "I feel like any day it will click, and I'll be right back where I need to be. I've still got some time, and I plan on getting out of this, definitely."
Punto is showing some signs of turning the corner. He's averaging .275 over his last eight games with a triple and three doubles.
When he does get on a roll and break out of the slump, his teammates will be the ones cheering the loudest.
Leslie Parker is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.