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The unlikely third baseman

Posted at 7:41 PM on July 28, 2006 by David Zingler

Nick Punto entered this season as .239 hitting utility player that had trouble staying off the Disabled List. You had to love his heart, hustle and glove, but you never would have thought he’d be the starting third baseman on a contending team. As it turns out, neither did he.

“It was something that was new to me,” Punto admitted. “I had played sporadically over there, but I didn’t ever envision myself as an everyday third baseman. The more I get out there, the more comfortable I get. I feel really good right now.”

Anybody on an 18 game hitting steak, batting .321 and reaching base at a .403 clip would “feel really good”, but what is the secret behind his drastic increase in production?

“A little bit has to do with maturity and a lot is due to the fact I changed the mechanics of my swing,” the 28-year-old explained. “It’s a shorter swing more suited for contact and just putting the ball in play. That’s helped me see pitches better and also draw some walks.”

Like most Twins hitters, Punto is quick to give credit to first year hitting coach Joe Vavra and his “positive” approach, but the scrappy infielder also received a boost from a Hall of Famer.

“Rod Carew was a big help,” Punto pointed out. “He was the one that actually changed the mechanics of my swing, so I’ve got to give him a lot of credit for what I’ve been doing this year -- just getting on base and putting the ball in play more.”

(The mechanics change) was just a spring training thing,” the San Diego native continued. “(Carew) actually only came in for two weeks and worked with me. Joe Vavra has done a good job of helping remind me of the things that Rod Carew had mentioned.”

After swatting 4 homeruns in 2005, the diminutive former Phillie has yet to leave the park this year. He says that is the lone downside to his new approach, “I’ve got a more compact swing now, that’s part of just putting the ball in play,” Punto stated. “There won’t be many homeruns.”

Throughout his career, Punto has been bitten with the injury bug, so when he left a game with a knee injury earlier this month many expected the worst. The hardnosed Punto however, returned to the line-up the following day and hasn’t left since.

“It’s just a jammed knee, it feels a lot better,” he commented. “It didn’t matter if it hurt or not, I wasn’t coming out of the line-up.”

At 5-9 on his tip-toes, Punto is hardly the prototypical third baseman, but he can field the position and is a refreshing change from the sluggish Tony Batista. And, as well as he and the Twins have been playing, why change now?

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