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Maybe we didn’t appreciate what we had in ex-Twin Nick Punto

Nick Punto dives
REUTERS/Steve Nesius
Ex-Twin utility man Nick Punto has found a new home with the Boston Red Sox.

About 10,000 people and almost as many flying insects remained at Target Field on Tuesday night when Nick Punto pinch-hit for Kevin Youkilis at garbage time for his new team, the Boston Red Sox. If anybody booed in the eighth inning, the cheering drowned them out, and an appreciative Punto lifted his batting helmet in thanks.

“It really caught me off guard more than anything,” Punto said. “I played seven years here. That’s a lot of time. Twins fans showing their appreciation, it really felt good.”

Punto walked and slid hard into second baseman Trevor Plouffe on a force play as the final run scored in Boston’s 11-2 rout. When Punto returned to the dugout, a few dozen fans in the third-base box seats applauded his effort. The angriest had long departed the premises, annoyed with starter Nick Blackburn (who needed only five pitches to give up his first run), the brief cloudburst in the fourth, or the blowout score.

A lot has happened since the Twins patted Punto on the head and sent him on his way after the 2010 season.

Longest-serving ‘piranha’

The longest-serving Twin of the three players then-White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen nicknamed “little piranhas” in 2006 (along with Jason Bartlett and Jason Tyner), Punto hooked on last year with the St. Louis Cardinals, winning the World Series ring that eluded him here. Punto hasn’t received the ring yet and isn’t sure when he’ll get it, but he already knows exactly where he’ll keep it.

“Right there,” he said, pointing to the ring finger on his left hand.

After the season, the Cardinals cut him loose, choosing younger, cheaper backups over a 34-year-old with durability questions. Last year, a sports hernia, a right forearm flexor strain and a strained left oblique forced Punto to the disabled list three times (sound familiar?). He played only 63 games but batted .278, a 40-point improvement over his final season in Minnesota.

Punto made 10 postseason starts at second base and fielded well enough to draw a two-year, $3 million offer from Boston in December as a utility infielder, an upgrade from his $750,000 salary with St. Louis.

Most of you probably remember that Punto’s play here infuriated some people. His headfirst slides into first base and occasionally foolhardy base-running enraged the same subset of folks who routinely bash manager Ron Gardenhire. I liked Punto, but sometimes he even tested my patience. His base-running gaffe in the 2009 playoffs led off this harsh piece that drew more reader comments than anything I’ve ever done for MinnPost.

Scouts love his versatility

Here’s the thing: Scouts love Punto’s versatility, slick glove, smarts and hustle. A National League scout who played in the majors once told me that Punto’s knack for diving and snagging ground balls, rather than flopping for show, gave him the same above-average range as someone a step quicker.

But he’s not, and probably never should have been, an everyday player. Today, scouts use a 150 at-bat benchmark for backups – enough to be productive, but not enough to expose their flaws. Punto, they say, fits that category.

That’s not how Gardenhire used him, thanks to the Twins’ abysmal record of producing middle infielders and third basemen. The Twins haven’t signed and developed an everyday shortstop since Pat Meares held the position from 1993 to 1998. Cristian Guzman (Yankees) and Jason Bartlett (San Diego) arrived in trades, as did Punto (Philadelphia). The last homegrown second baseman: Luis Rivas, who left after the 2004 season. At third, the Twins ran through a succession of stopgaps between Corey Koskie in 2004 and Danny Valencia in 2010.

Punto’s breakout 2006 season, where he batted .290 with spectacular glove work at third, deluded the Twins into thinking he could be a regular. Except for a .284 resurgence in 2008, he never hit close to that again. In the end, too many injuries and too big a paycheck (he made $4 million each in his last two seasons here) prompted the Twins to let him go – a sensible decision at the time.

Maybe we didn’t appreciate what we had. Matt Tolbert, the next Punto, hit .198 and now plays in the Cubs system. Every ball Valencia waves at, and every double play that goes unturned, makes old Nicky look better and better.

At home in Boston

Boston, he likes. Punto found a house with a yard for his two children and two dogs in a leafy neighborhood in Chestnut Hill, Mass., not far from Boston College. So far he’s batting .267, mainly backing up Youkilis at third. He had three hits and three RBI in his first start April 8 in Detroit.

When Punto sits, Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine said, “He’s into the game, very observant. He’s with his teammates. He’ll talk about pitcher’s pitches. He’s with [hitting coach] Dave Magadan a lot, talking about what they see. He’s a good guy on the team, a really good guy. I’m glad we got him.”

Joining the Sox allowed Punto to complete an odd trifecta of playing before the toughest fans in baseball (Philadelphia), the smartest (St. Louis) and the most panicky (Boston). Already, Punto experienced the season-long Armageddon that is Red Sox-Yankees baseball. A two-game pounding by the Evil Empire last weekend, topped with a blown nine-run lead on Saturday, brought a monsoon of boos for Valentine over Boston’s 4-10 start.

Knowing my Boston friends, expect Wednesday night’s bullpen fiasco that turned a 7-1 laugher into a 7-6 squeaker to overshadow the three-game sweep of the Twins. In Red Sox Nation, catastrophe trumps achievement.

“I think in Boston, it’s historical, passed down through the generations,” Punto said. “You love the Red Sox, and that’s how it’s going to be. They’re definitely going to love to cheer you when you’re doing well, and if you’re doing bad, it’s going to get bad. That’s how it was in Philadelphia. They can go from booing to cheering you really quick, because they’re so emotionally involved.”

“We’ve got a good group of guys here. It’s going to get better. As a group, we’re not playing good baseball, but we’re still having fun together. It’s still early, and we’ll have a really good season when we start playing good baseball.”

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