Twins: Punto-meter needs a jolt of offense

Infielder Nick Punto is precariously close to becoming the first major league regular in 16 years to hit below .200 in a season.

Twins infielder Nick Punto has tried everything and nothing. He has listened to everyone and has tried going it alone.

Nothing has worked. The swing that got him a .290 batting average last season has mysteriously vanished. Now Punto could become baseball's next Mr. .200.

He enters this weekend's series against the Chicago White Sox batting .198 with one homer and 22 RBI and could become the first player since Rob Deer in 1991 -- and only the fourth player in the past 32 years -- to finish with a batting average under .200 while having enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title.

His season has become a blur of fly balls, popped up bunts and called third strikes. But the switch-hitting Punto doesn't view his possible brush with infamy as the ultimate embarrassment.

"No, not really," he said. "I'd love to finish at .300, but that's not going to happen. There's no difference between .195 and .210."

In his eyes, the game already has humbled him enough this season.

Last year Punto helped the Twins rally to win the AL Central title. After working with Hall of Famer Rod Carew during spring training, he made solid contact, bunted for hits, used his speed and aggravated White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen so much that Guillen referred to him as "Ty Cobb Punto."

Punto signed a two-year, $4.2 million contract during the offseason. He seemed to be established.

But his average hasn't been above .250 since May 3, though his defense has remained spectacular. He struggled to make adjustments, then tried everything he and hitting coach Joe Vavra could come up with, including not trying anything at all, just going to the plate and hoping to swing his way out of his funk. The outs kept accumulating.

He said he has seen Carew "a little bit" during the season. The outs kept accumulating.

In his Twins teammates, Punto jokes that he has "28 hitting coaches" offering advice. But the outs kept accumulating. He has had one multi-hit game -- one -- since July 23.

"We talked to him about trying to do some things, bunting and stuff," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He's been so flustered with his swing he's gotten away from the best part of his game, which is the bunting part. He hasn't used that weapon this year because he's been trying to figure out his swing. Not that he hasn't tried. He's trying to hit the top of the ball, believe me he is. It just keeps going up."

The oh-fers have led to long nights after games.

"Everyone takes it home. If they say they don't, they are lying," he said, "but I've got a lovely wife at home. She's really supportive. When I go home, it's me and her. That doesn't mean I'm forgetting about it. That's not possible."

Deer, a free-swinging masher who accumulated massive strikeout totals during an 11-year career, knows about those long nights. He hit .179 in 1991 while with Detroit with 25 homers, 64 RBI and 179 strikeouts in 134 games.

Deer lives in the Phoenix area and recently was the San Diego Padres' minor league hitting instructor. His approach to Padres prospects: get them to not hit like him.

"I'd go to bed at night thinking about three numbers," Deer said. "Two, oh, oh." As in .200.

Deer in 1991 was in the first year of a three-year contract that paid him a little more than $6 million, and the pressure of living up to the deal was enormous. Although he hit for power, he wanted to hit for a decent average. He doesn't know Punto but imagines they are two hitters familiar with being in low places.

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