Nick Punto will never win a batting title. Not only that, but he’ll probably never bat .300, hit more than 10 home runs in a season or drive in over 50. He’s played more than 125 games twice in his 10 seasons in the big leagues and has a career slugging percentage of .326. It’s statistics like these than make Punto one of the least-liked current Minnesota Twins (most Twins fans don’t hate their players, they just like them less than others). But it’s for everything outside the boxscore that also make him one of the most respected on the team.
Punto is the sometimes-starting third baseman for Minnesota. The 2010 season is his seventh with the team after being traded by the Phillies in exchange for Eric Milton after the 2003 season. Carlos Silva also came to Minnesota as part of that trade. Punto will platoon with Brendan Harris at the hot spot.
Patrick Reusse, columnist for the Star Tribune, recently wrote that Punto plays third base as well as anyone in Minnesota since Gary Gaetti. He’s right. Not only does he play third base as well as anyone in years, but he can also make an argument for shortstop and second base. When someone has gone down with an injury, Punto fills in. Rarely does he replace the bat, but it’s a sure bet the pitcher feels more secure knowing his glove is behind him.
Despite his glovework, Punto will probably never earn a Gold Glove award. He doesn’t play enough, and even if he did, he wouldn’t be as recognized by the voters due to his lack of offense. Sadly, that seems to factor into the voting: i.e. Seattle’s center fielder Franklin Gutierrez or any season for Doug Mientkiewicz aside from 2001. Complaints about the Gold Glove award voting can be saved for another column.
The main problem with Punto in the past was his lack of offense in a lineup that needed all the runs it could muster. The Twins haven’t had a full-time third baseman they could count on since Corey Koskie who departed after the 2004 season. The great news for Punto this season is his lack of offense isn’t as big of an issue as there’s more than enough sluggers in the rest of the lineup. He’s about half way between a great hitter like Justin Morneau and any National League team’s pitcher in the lineup. With seven hitters in the lineup capable of hitting at least 20 home runs, there’s little need for the Twins to ask for more than a .250 average from Mr. Punto.
Of course, that’s not saying he can’t deliver when needed. In the Twins’ 163rd game of the 2009 season, a one-game playoff with the Tigers, it was Punto who singled to start the seventh inning and was on first base when Orlando Cabrera homered to put the Twins ahead. Punto also gutted his way through a 10-pitch walk to start the bottom of the ninth.
That was just his offense. In the Tigers’ half of the 12th inning with one out and the bases loaded, Brandon Inge hit a weak ground ball to Punto at second base. With the game on the line and pinch runner Don Kelly approaching Punto’s line of sight, the wily second baseman didn’t hesitate and threw to Joe Mauer at the plate to make sure Detroit didn’t score the winning run. After the game, manager Ron Gardenhire told reporters, “People always ask me why I put Nick Punto in the game – that’s why I put Punto in the game.”
Yes, the man is a great fielder and yes, he can be a clutch hitter. But that’s still not all that draws me to Nick Punto. As a kid playing baseball and an adult playing weekly softball games, I can see myself through Nick Punto’s game. I’ve never had any power, but the power I don’t have I make up for in hustle and speed. With that hustle and speed comes my favorite part of playing baseball and I’m pretty sure it’s Punto’s favorite too: the head-first slide. Coaches say not to do it because it is too dangerous. But who cares about danger when you’re a .248 lifetime hitter and your uniform is sparkling clean? Without his head-first slides and hustle, Punto not only has a much lower batting average, but he may not be in the big leagues at all. He knows he’ll never have Joe Mauer’s batting eye or Justin Morneau’s power, so he maximizes the strengths he does have.
There was a play at Yankee Stadium in 2007 that encapsulated his hustle and defensive prowess. Playing second base, a soft ground ball was hit to him. Punto charged and grabbed the ball with his bare hand and, while falling and parallel to the ground, threw to first to get the runner. The magnificence of the play lies in Punto disregard to injury and also the acrobatics of throwing a baseball with no base of origin to power the throw as well as being less than half a second from crashing into the ground with nothing to stop the collision except his right shoulder. It’s the same fearlessness Torii Hunter shows chasing a ball against the centerfield fence. When Punto makes plays like that, it doesn’t matter to me if he goes 0-for-4 at the plate. That’s why you put Nick Punto in the lineup.
In regards to his head-first slides, it shows to me that he loves playing the game. I go out of my way to slide head first whenever I get the chance. If I’m going from first to third and there’s no play, but I know I won’t be scoring: I slide head first. It’s fun! Whether there’s going to be a play or not, I do my best to slide head first because nothing feels better than stopping your full-speed run sliding across smooth dirt on your chest and wrapping your arms around that base. That base represents your safety in the treacherously dangerous basepaths between the batter’s box and home plate. So why not greet that safety with a crashing hug? I could go home after a win and four hits, but I’ll feel empty if my uniform is still clean and I think Punto would agree. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Twins have their own washer just for Punto’s jerseys.
Punto even slides head first on close plays at first base. It has been proven again and again that runners will get to first base faster by running through it rather than sliding. The slide slows down the progress. I read an interview with Punto a few years back that cleared up his thoughts on why he slides head first and also threw a monkey wrench into the theory that is slows you down. Punto said if the runner hasn’t actually touched the ground when he touches first, how could it slow you down? If the sliding is done after the base, then the play has already been decided. In other words, what Punto likes to do is fly to first base and land after it. He also believes the chaos of the slide will sometimes confuse the umpire and give the runner the benefit of the doubt.
Nick Punto represents something in all of us. Nick Punto is not a superstar and never will be. But he does his best with the talent he has. He knows he’s in a very privileged occupation and he never takes that for granted. He knows there are thousands in the stands who would love to trade places with him and he does his best to give every one of those fans their money’s worth whether it’s with his no-fear defense, extra-base-hustling baserunning, head-first slides, or even the occasional clutch hit. He won’t go in the hall of fame, he won’t even go in the Twins hall of fame, but he will be remembered and missed when he’s gone.
He’ll live among other Twins legends who did the absolute best with the little talent they had like Cesar Tovar, Greg Gagne and Dan Gladden. I never saw Tovar play, but have heard stories from my parents and their peers of his undying hustle. When I think of Gagne, I remember his wide range at shortstop and his infield single that drove in the winning run in game seven of the 1987 World Series. As for Gladden, it’s up for grabs who was the bigger hustler: him or Punto. Gladden will forever be known for his broken-bat single that he stretched to a double to open the bottom of the 10th inning in the seventh game of the 1991 World Series. Gladden eventually scored the winning run to win that World Series. I can see Punto playing a similar role for the Twins in the future.