Twins infielder Nick Punto has had his critics during his time here whenever he has had trouble hitting, which is the case this season. He is playing regularly but is batting only .203 after going 0-for-3 in Saturday's 8-7 loss to the White Sox.

But Punto made two great fielding plays at second base Friday night, and his defense is one reason Twins manager Ron Gardenhire believes he is one of the most valuable players on the team despite his poor batting average this year.

"Nicky can play anywhere," Gardenhire said. "He's a glove guy. ... He's good everywhere you put him. He's great at third base. He's plays great at short. He plays great at second. He can flat-out pick it."

Asked what makes Punto so strong defensively, Gardenhire said: "His instincts. He's got great hands. He's low to the ground. A low center of gravity. He's just a good player."

Gardenhire added: "If everybody else does their job in the lineup, Nick Punto is fantastic. When other people start struggling ... then people starting saying, maybe he can't hit. Nicky can do it. He can hit. He's hit .280 in this league. Too much emphasis gets put on his offense; his defense, you can't replace that."

Punto is a .249 hitter over his six seasons with the Twins. However, he has alternated good hitting years (.290 in 2006 and .284 in 2008) with poor ones (.210 in 2007 and .203 this year). One thing about Punto's 2009 season, though, is that he has drawn 30 walks after drawing 32 all of 2008. Friday night, he led off the seventh inning with a walk off Octavio Dotel and then came around to score the winning run on Joe Mauer's single in a 6-4 victory over Chicago.

Punto is one of the great leaders on the team, and that's why the Twins brought him back when he was a free agent last offseason, giving him $8 million over two years.

"I tell you what," Gardenhire said. "If we don't sign Nick Punto there's about 20 other teams that were after him, that wanted this young man, because he's a baseball player. He's all right. He plays hard. That's what he does."

Recruiting going well

The Gophers football team now has 10 commitments for the 2010 freshman class, something that hasn't happened this early before.

The interesting thing about the list is there are three Wisconsin recruits. In the past the Badgers have recruited well in Minnesota. Now under Tim Brewster perhaps has reversed it. The Wisconsin players are offensive linemen Matt Eggen from La Crosse Logan and Zac Epping from Kenosha Tremper, and quarterback Tom Parish from Hartland Arrowhead. Recent commitments include Allen Veazie, a defensive back from Houston; Kip Smith, a kicker from Broomfield, Colo.; Donnell Kirkwood, a running back from Delray Beach, Fla.; and Mark Lenkiewicz, a offensive lineman from Tinley Park, Ill. Earlier commitments included Jim Gjere, a four-star offensive lineman from Irondale High School; Lamonte Edwards, a Woodbury standout who can play many positions; and Antoine Lewis, a defensive back from Maywood, Ill.

Jottings

Yes, you always heard people say that they won't go to the Metrodome to see baseball games. Well, check this season: Through 46 games (Friday's game), the Twins had drawn 1,280,357, an average of 27,834 per game. Looking back four years, the only time it was higher at the same period of time was 2007, when the total was 1,310,439 and the average 28,488. The new ballpark will be great, but fans liked the Dome, too, even though it wasn't the best stadium for baseball.

Matt Guerrier is 4-0 with a great 2.50 ERA after blanking the White Sox for one inning in relief on Friday. "Guerrier is throwing the ball well," Gardenhire said. "As long as we don't beat him up and wear him out [like last season]. ... We have to do our job and not kill him, and that means other guys out there have to get things done." Guerrier's 43 appearances this season are tied with former teammate Craig Breslow of Oakland for second in the American League, one game behind Toronto's Jesse Carlson.

There have been plenty of critics of center fielder Carlos Gomez, but he has made a lot of great catches. And Friday, he put down a bunt single to drive in a run in the eighth inning. "That was a great bunt," Gardenhire said. "We talked about that. He needs to be able to bunt, he needs to be do some things like that. He's a heck of a defensive player. He has to use his speed. Shorten his swing and all those things. That was huge."

Vikings special teams standout Heath Farwell, who hurt his knee last preseason and missed the 2008 season, is healthy again and looking forward to playing this fall. "I had the operation Aug. 19," Farwell said. "[Rehabilitation] was tough ... but it's starting now that I'm getting where I'm so healthy. I'm able to do all the stuff, all the runs that they have the rest of the guys, all the linebackers, run, I'm doing them, too." On getting in on defense, Farwell said: "We've got three good linebackers, so I just provide some good depth, and just be ready to go, in case they need me."

Among outstanding sports figures past and present who will appear at the Starkey Hearing Foundation's So The World May Hear Awards Gala today in St. Paul to raise money to provide hearing aids for poor children all over the world will be four members of the 1961 Yankees: Bob Turley, Ralph Terry, Moose Skowron and Whitey Ford; Vikings coach Brad Childress and Vikings players Steve Hutchinson and Bernard Berrian; Arizona Cardinals star receiver Larry Fitzgerald Jr.; golfers Arnold Palmer and Tony Jacklin; Timberwolves forward Mark Madsen, and Gophers men's basketball coach Tubby Smith. Monday, Palmer will be honored with the President's Award during the Northwestern Health Sciences President's Invitational Golf Tournament at Hazeltine for his commitment to the Starkey Foundation and to natural health care.

Gophers swimmers Karl Burdis (Ireland), Ray Betuzzi (Canada), Ivan Gutesa (Serbia) and Nadav Kochavi (Israel) were competing in the World University Games in Belgrade, Serbia, last week, as was Gophers diver Kristoffer Jorgensen (Norway). Burdis placed seventh in the 100-meter backstroke and 10th in the 50 backstroke, and Betuzzi finished 11th in the 200 freestyle.

Jacob Capek, an outstanding football player at Rochester John Marshall who won the state 200-meter title last month in his first year running track, has signed a letter of intent to compete in track for the Gophers.

Gophers wrestling coach J Robinson has 260 young men competing in his clinic that runs 28 days with four sessions each day at the Gophers football building.

Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on WCCO AM-830 at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on his Podcast once a week at www.startribune.com/sidcast. shartman@startribune.com