Posted at 10:55 PM on May 22, 2005
by David Zingler
He doesn’t have the sweet swing of Joe Mauer, the graceful gallop of Torii Hunter or the ferocious power of Justin Morneau, but Twins second baseman Nick Punto has used all-out hustle to make him one of the most gratifying players to watch on this years’ version of the Twins. Not to mention one of the easiest guys to root for.
Generously listed at 5-9, the diminutive infielder has battled stereotypes about his size since he was drafted by the Phillies in the 21st round back in 1998. “I still hear about my size to this day,” Punto began before backup catcher Mike Redmond, who was eavesdropping on the conversation, blurted out, “Size?! Have you seen him with his shirt off? This guy is stacked.”
Punto laughed and continued, “In baseball it doesn’t matter how big you are, you just have to play your game.”
The San Diego native was acquired by the Twins as part of the Eric Milton trade in December 2003. Now, after an injury riddled 2004 season, it appears Punto has achieved his dream of becoming a big league regular.
“It’s nice to get the consistent at bats that I am getting right now,” the 27-year-old commented. “I have been waiting to play everyday for a long time – ever since I got to the big leagues in 2001. It’s great, I am just enjoying it.”
Finally fed up with the inconsistent, lackadaisical play of incumbent second baseman Luis Rivas, Ron Gardenhire gave Punto his big break in late April. Instead of discussing the switch however, the Twins skipper chose to let his lineup card do the talking.
“I don’t think we’ve ever talked about it,” Punto said of his new full time gig. “(Gardenhire) didn’t have to call me in (his office) and tell me that. It’s fine to come to the park and see my name in the lineup – that’s good enough for me.”
The main question mark surrounding Punto is durability. A strained oblique muscle and broken clavicle limited the scrappy infielder to just 38 games last season. That, coupled with a strained calf muscle that kept him out of action for three games last week, has some adding “injury prone” as a prefix to his name.
“That’s a horrible name in this game,” he responded when asked about the label, “but you can’t do anything about that – people are going to say what they want to say.”
Without his hard nose style and willingness to sacrifice his body, Punto likely would not be in the big leagues, but is it possible to play too hard?
“I don’t think so,” he said after being posed with that question. “I don’t know anybody who would say that...it doesn’t make any sense.”
I think the way Punto plays can be summed up in one trip to the plate, and the around the bases, in our lone win against the Rangers earlier in May (at least, I think that's when it was).
Punto reached with a single (which was something like 12 hits in 14 ABs at the time), then stole second. A few pitches later, Nick steals third, and just hangs out with a half-grin and waits for Justin Morneau to sac fly.
"Nicky Hustle" is a great nickname, Dave - I hope it sticks. The guy grinds out every hit and extra base. Not only is he comfortable with his "small-ball" roll, but he is apparently loving it.