Punto trying to put 2007 behind him
After rough season, infielder trying to win job at second base
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Two years ago, Nick Punto was working in the batting cages on his swing when Rod Carew called over to him and offered up a few suggestions.Carew felt that Punto's upright stance and penchant for hitting the ball in the air weren't taking advantage of his most useful tool -- his speed. So a few slight tweaks were made to Punto's approach to have it mimic Carew's from his playing days. Those changes led to the best year of the infielder's career. Punto hit .290 with 45 RBIs and earned his first starting job in the Majors as the Twins third baseman. But now, it's all about trying to get back to that same form. Punto had one of the worst offensive seasons in recent MLB history in '07, hitting .210 with one home run and 25 RBIs. It was a result, he says, of losing sight of those changes he made two years ago. "In '06, it was a shorter, more compact swing, and I kind of got away from that," Punto said. "My swing grew a little longer and more uphill. Now we're doing some extra work in the cages, trying to work on the high pitches and get on top of them with my top hand, stuff I did when things were going well." Punto and Carew have been working together once again, although the results haven't quite been there yet in spring. Punto is hitting .118 (2-for-17) in seven games with one run scored. But Punto says that he's already made huge strides from last season. "All of my practice has been awesome," Punto said. "It's just taking it to a game situation and having it click. I feel like I'm right there." Results may seem more important than confidence, but not when you consider the long road it's taken for Punto to get his confidence back. After signing a two-year, $4.2 million deal in the winter prior to the '07 season, Punto entered the spring last year just bursting with confidence. He'd been guaranteed the third-base job and he was looking to prove that '06 was not a fluke.
Instead, Punto watched as his offense disappeared. He hit just .220 in the first month of the season and things never really improved from there.Punto's struggles weren't helped by the fact that he was battling through a strained oblique muscle for part of the year. It was an injury that likely would have sidelined him earlier in his career, but Punto remained on the field and made the dynamic defensive plays at third that people were accustomed to seeing. He just could not get the offense going. "You struggle in April, and you're like, 'People struggle in April,'" Punto said. "You start struggling in May -- people do in May, too -- but you start getting into June, July and August and you start to forget where you were. You get lost and everything just starts to snowball." The hitting advice for Punto came from every direction, although Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra said it wasn't so much about the mechanical issues. The two spent plenty of time looking over video of Punto's swing. But in the end, it was Punto's mind that Vavra thinks hindered him. "His cage routine and everything else was totally different than the game," Vavra said. "It's just that he got deeper and deeper into frustration. It's hard to slow down and go through the process because that first at-bat comes up, they make an out and they think, 'Here we go again.' "And emotionally you just drain yourself." Punto's struggling offense quickly became the subject of jokes from the local media and the national press as well. Taking that sort of criticism is never easy, but Punto said that he put more pressure on himself than anyone else did. "I've never struggled like that any time in my life," Punto said. "It was hard, but it's such a good learning experience, too. If you can get through that, you can get through anything." Shortstop Adam Everett has a better understanding than most of what Punto endured over the last year. Everett has long been regarded as one of the better defensive players in the game, but following a few rough years at the plate, he's been labeled as a "glove-only" type player. "It stinks that you can get labeled in the game so quickly," Everett said. "For you to get rid of labels, it's really, really hard. But you have to have thick skin to play this game, and rather than listen to anyone else, you have to know your own ability." Punto is determined to try to shed the label he earned last season. He said that he was able to enter the offseason with a more positive frame of mind thanks to a strong September. Punto hit .286 that month, with a .324 on-base percentage. It allowed him to take some time off early in the winter and try to clear his mind of all the thoughts he'd kept there during his rough season. He said he prepared himself to come into this spring with yet another challenge ahead of him: to win back a starting job, this time at second base. Punto received some pretty stiff competition when the Twins acquired infielder Brendan Harris in their six-player trade with Tampa Bay. Punto knows what it will take to earn it. "Now I'm fighting to get back in that lineup as I should be," Punto said. "I should not be handed anything. "Bottom line is you have to hit to stay in the Major Leagues. So I need to hit."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.