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Updated: April 23rd, 2012 7:46pm
Zulgad's Roundup: QB optimistic Vikings can win 8 or 9 games in 2012

Zulgad's Roundup: QB optimistic Vikings can win 8 or 9 games in 2012

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- While every sign points to the Minnesota Vikings entering a true rebuilding stage after going 3-13 last season, quarterback Christian Ponder has much higher hopes for 2012.

Ponder said during a recent appearance on "Judd & Phunn" on 1500 ESPN that he sees no reason why it shouldn't be realistic for the Vikings to win eight or nine games this coming season.

"Three years ago, we're in the NFC championship game and it turned around that quickly the other way," said Ponder, who went 2-8 in 10 starts for the Vikings in 2011 after being the 12th pick in the draft.  "I think we can turn it around. I think a lot of it has to do with my play.

"If I play well, then things will build off of me, and I realize that. Yeah, it's a lot of pressure on me, and we'll see. We did get some good guys through free agency, and we'll get a lot of good guys in the draft and we'll see how it goes."

The Vikings have 10 picks in this weekend's three-day draft. Those players will join Ponder's class in being the key to whether the Vikings can get back on track in short order or whether this is going to be a long and painful process.

Ponder, 24, replaced veteran Donovan McNabb as the Vikings' starting quarterback in October of last season and provided some hope with his immediate play. However, injury issues and rookie struggles saw him begin to fade as the season progressed.

He threw for 1,853 yards with 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions and was sacked 30 times, including five times in a 27-21 loss to Oakland. A lingering issue with his right hip and a concussion cost Ponder playing time and he was not able to complete three of the last four games.

Among the things that will benefit Ponder this time around will be the presence of the Vikings' offseason program. The workouts, Organized Team Activities and minicamps were wiped out by the lockout last spring and summer.

This mean that Ponder had to work with former NFL quarterback Chris Weinke at a training facility in Florida. He did have the benefit of a Vikings playbook that he got from offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave during a brief period when the lockout was lifted but that was it.

Asked about the pressure he will be facing this time around, Ponder said: "I think there's almost less pressure this year. Obviously, being through it and knowing what it takes to be successful -- there's still obviously a lot of pressure and there's a lot of things I need to improve upon. I realize that."

One player expected to make Ponder better in 2012 will be tight end Kyle Rudolph. The Vikings have shown no indication they will bring back free agent Visanthe Shiancoe, so Rudolph and free-agent signee John Carlson will be among the go-to-guys in an offense that, when things are clicking, favors throwing the ball to the tight end.

"The guy is a freak," Ponder said of Rudolph. "For how big he is (6-foot-6, 258 pounds) and how well he moves, and his hands are unbelievable. A tight end really is a quarterback's best friend, especially when he's a young guy. I think the sky's the limit for him.

"I think he'll be a Pro Bowl guy within the next two years, and I think by adding another tight end, John Carlson, You realize how important the tight end is in our system, Musgrave's system. Kyle's going to be getting the ball a lot more and I'm excited for him. I'm excited for myself. Having a target like that makes it a lot easier for me."

Little interest in Punto

It's no secret that Twins manager Ron Gardenhire thinks highly of Nick Punto, but the utility infielder said Monday that his agent only "may have talked" to the Twins this offseason when he was a free agent.

Punto ended up signing a two-year, $3 million deal with the Boston Red Sox in December. "There wasn't a whole lot of interest (from the Twins) by any means," Punto said. "That's just part of (baseball)."

Punto spent seven seasons with the Twins (2004-10) before departing for a season with the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals won the World Series last year and Punto described it as "incredible."

"It's something I wish everybody could experience," said Punto, who entered Monday's game against the Twins at Target Field hitting .267 with three RBI in 15 at-bats. "That's the ultimate high is being world champs. As many former world champions (might tell you) -- however many stories you hear about how cool it is -- until you experience it, it's ten folds better than what people say it is."

St. Louis beat the Texas Rangers in a thrilling seven-game World Series that saw the Cardinals rally from two-run deficits in the bottom of the ninth and 10th innings before winning Game 6 in the 11th. The Rangers were one strike away from winning their first World Series in each case.

"From September on we just played outstanding baseball," Punto said. "Kind of steamrolled (teams) and got to the postseason. It's always tough to play the hot team and that was kind of us. Then when we beat Philly in the fifth game (of the National League Division Series), (Chris) Carpenter- (Roy) Halladay, that was an unreal matchup.

"Got to play our foe, Milwaukee, which was a good series as well, and then the Texas Rangers, a great ballclub. But it was an outstanding run."

Monday marked Punto's first time at Target Field since his departure from Minnesota. He still keeps in contact with some members of the organization, such as Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau and a few coaches, although that list is getting smaller because of turnover.

"There's a lot of great memories here," he said, adding, "It's cool to see Mauer and Morneau both healthy. Without Mauer and Morneau healthy it's going to be tough for these guys ever to win. In my personal opinion, in my tenure here for seven years, we had Mauer and Morneau healthy and that's why we were as good as we were."

Looking for turnaround

The Red Sox entered Monday at the bottom of the standings in the American League East with a 4-10 record and having lost five in a row. On Saturday, Boston blew a nine-run lead against the New York Yankees, gave up back-to-back seven-run innings, and lost 15-9.

Fans were booing manager Bobby Valentine and the defeat brought even more national attention to a team that seems to be constantly in the spotlight.

"It's crazy at times, but it's so cool to get that much attention," Punto said of his early-season experience in Boston. "It's definitely a fun place to play if you're winning and if you're not, it's not a whole lot of fun. We have to start winning. We have the talent to do it, and we just haven't put it all together yet."

After spending a summer in baseball crazy St. Louis and now being in Boston, Punto was asked how the Twin Cities stack up when it comes to its love for baseball.

"Minnesota, they don't get a whole lot of national media (attention)," he said, "and the passionate fans that we had when I played here, they don't get enough respect because Minnesota fans and their passion for the Twins -- Minnesota Twins Territory, if you will -- they are passionate fans. They just don't get that media attention, it's a smaller market. But they have incredible fans."

Morneau back at first

Justin Morneau started at first base Monday night for only the second time this season.

Morneau's desire coming out of spring training was to serve as the designated hitter this season because he wanted to reduce his chances of suffering another concussion while playing in the field.

However, Morneau then asked to play first base for a game last week against the Yankees because it helps him to be more engaged in the game.

"We've talked about that a lot," Gardenhire said of having Morneau in the field. "Being the DH, he's still learning, it's a learning process for him. It helps him definitely (to DH because) he's able to get through some of the things that he couldn't get through playing. But still he likes to be out there.

"Mentally you're into it both ways (playing first), and you don't sit around and think about your next at-bat. He likes that part of it. We talked about that quite a bit. We're going to put him over there here and there and see if we can mix him in as best as we possibly can. As we all know, it's about keeping him on the field, too. But he wants to get out there every once in a while."

Interesting timing

Timberwolves guard J.J. Barea did not hold back Sunday night after his team blew a 21-point lead in a 93-88 loss to Golden State at Target Center.

"We've got problems here," Barea told reporters. "We've just got a lot of guys that don't care. When a basketball team (has) a bunch of players that don't care, it's tough to win games. It's going to happen until we get players in that care. Care about winning, care about the team, care about the fans."

It's unclear if Barea was airing his own frustrations with one-game left in the season or whether he was using his status as a veteran to deliver a message for coach Rick Adelman.

"They just come in here after the game like nothing happened," Barea added, speaking about his teammates but not identifying any individuals. "That's what happens to a losing team."

However you look at it, it was interesting that Barea ended up criticizing the team.

Signed to a four-year, $19 million free-agent contract after playing last season for the world champion Dallas Mavericks, Barea did not exactly deliver this season for the Wolves. He played all 48 minutes and had 14 points and 12 assists against the Warriors, but he also has missed 25 games, mostly because of injury issues.

The Wolves right now are without starting point guard Ricky Rubio (knee), backup point guard Luke Ridnour (sprained right ankle) and power forward Kevin Love (concussion, neck).

The Wolves haven't gotten the performances from many of their players they were hoping to see when some of their primary talent was lost. They have lost 12 of their past 13 and that is disappointing.

But certainly basketball boss David Kahn and Adelman know who can play and who can't by this point and, if anything, this stretch of games has given the an opportunity to confirm any beliefs they had.

It would be one thing for Love to have decided to come out and criticize his teammates - although pointing the finger at just about everyone doesn't seem like a great idea - but I'm not sure it makes a ton of sense to have a guy coming off an injury-plagued season attempt to deliver a message with one-game remaining.

End game

The Twins starting staff entered Monday with a 2-9 record and a 6.41 ERA with 103 hits given up, 17 homers and 28 walks. Among Major League teams they were tied with the Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates for the fewest victories by a starting staff and were second behind the New York Yankees for the most hits given up and second behind the Toronto Blue Jays for the most home runs allowed.

Ben Revere, whom the Twins dispatched to Class AAA Rochester after claiming Clete Thomas off waivers from the Detroit Tigers, had been hitting .174 (4-for-23) for the Red Wings before going 2-for-4 with two runs in a 3-2 victory Sunday over Lehigh Valley. Despite the fact he has big-league experience, Revere is the youngest player on the Red Wings roster at 23 yards, 11 months, according to Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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