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Updated: May 10th, 2010 4:23pm
Pelissero: Getting defensive keeps Nick Punto in everyday mix

Pelissero: Getting defensive keeps Nick Punto in everyday mix

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by Tom Pelissero
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Watch Nick Punto snare a three-hop grounder with his bare right hand and fire a rope to first base, and you'd swear the Minnesota Twins' third baseman works on the skill year-round.

Defense is Punto's game -- the reason a former 21st-round draft pick has become an everyday big-league player for the better part of six years.

But Punto doesn't take ground balls in the offseason. Zero. Zip. Nada.

"Defense," Punto said last week, "comes when I get to spring training."

The offseason is about getting stronger, and faster.

Punto spent time this winter at Athletes Performance Institute in Phoenix, doing parachute work, sled pulls and plyometrics alongside other major leaguers and NFL players.

The offseason is about hitting, too.

Coming off a season in which he batted .228, Punto took extra swings in hopes of becoming more productive offensively -- even though, at age 32, he has no illusions about where he's making his money.

None of which is to say Punto takes his defense for granted. It's just that it comes so naturally.

"I think I was just raised that way," Punto said. "Being a smaller guy, playing a lot with guys that were older than me -- my dad (coach and former Boston Red Sox draft pick Lou Punto), he thought it would be better for my development to play with guys that were bigger, stronger, older, and for me to stay on the field, I had to play good defense."

A self-described "tiny, scrawny little kid" who had all of 160 pounds on his 5-foot-8 frame when he arrived at Saddleback College in his hometown of Mission Viejo, Calif., Nick Punto bulked up in the coming years but always knew defense would be his calling card.

The late John Vukovich, then a Double-A manager in the Philadelphia Phillies organization, provided Punto the defensive philosophy he espouses to this day.

"The flashy plays -- everybody can make those plays," Punto said. "It's about making that routine play every time, and how consistent can you be?"

Punto makes the routine play -- he's yet to commit an error this season, even though his remarkable range means he takes on balls many third basemen can't touch.

"Spring training, I told him, 'Dude, I can play way over in the middle a lot more with you over here,'" Twins shortstop J.J. Hardy said, "because (Punto was) taking balls that I would get to, like, regularly."

Punto makes the flashy play, too -- and that part isn't as much about luck as he makes it sound.

A former Phillies teammate, utility infielder Tomas Perez, once told him to make those plays in the game, you have to practice them, and Punto took it to heart.

So, every day after doing fundamentals, Punto started messing around -- and still does -- with the plays that are anything but.

The bare-handed pickups. The flips behind the back. The throws from his knees, and his butt, and the webbing of his glove.

"Nicky's not your prototype third baseman," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said, "but I'll match him with anybody in the league hand-wise and making plays."

There's a science to it as well, and Punto has that part down, despite his nomadic existence within the Twins infield. He likes third base -- the position he primarily played in 2006 and '07 before playing much of 2008 at shortstop and '09 at second base -- because the angles are so similar to his natural position.

The main difference between shortstop and third base is the ball can come a little harder.

"Major-league average runner's 4.4 seconds to first base," Punto said. "So, you have that clock going of internally, and you usually just go off that. Some guys get down there in 4 seconds, some get there in 3.8, and you just have to know your runner."

The runners know Punto, too, and that's the biggest reason the chances remain the same of Gardenhire going another direction if Punto's .259/.295/.352 clip slips as the year goes on.

Zero. Zip. Nada.

Tom Pelissero is Senior Editor and columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He hosts from 6 to 8 p.m. weeknights and co-hosts from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Tom | @TomPelissero | Tom Pelissero
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