One of the unsung heroes on this surprising Twins team is Nick Punto, who a year ago at this time was hitting .211. Going into Saturday's game with the Indians, he had eight hits in the previous eight games, and his batting average was .291.

And while he has missed some games this year because of injuries, his presence in the lineup is important because the team is 30-16 in games he has played.

Now with second baseman Alexi Casilla possibly out for the rest of the season because of a thumb injury, Punto is that much more important to the team.

"He's doing good. I mean, he's valuable because he can play everywhere," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He's a great defensive player, and he can get some hits and roll the balls up the middle. He's a spark plug, he comes to play every day and when he's healthy he's a good player.

"Oh yeah, and I'd match Nicky's glove with anybody. I mean range, everything. He's all over the field. And Casilla has done a hell of a job over there, but Nicky -- you'll match him anywhere defensively in the infield."

And Punto is having that great year with the bat.

"He's just shortened his swing up, and he's got his hands in a better position than he had them last year," Gardenhire said. "He's able to get down on the ball a little bit better and stay and cover the ball."

Gardenhire is eager to see pitcher Francisco Liriano make his first start today after being called up from Class AAA Rochester.

"Liriano's done what he needed to do to get back up here," Gardenhire said. "He's our future -- he's our present and our future. We needed to get him in the rotation, and it was time to do that. We're going to see what this young man has. If he comes back like we're hoping he is, and the way he's been throwing, he can be a huge boost. It's like getting a big trade right here."

Most of the media thought this was going to be a rebuilding year.

"I never say 'rebuilding' because you're in the major leagues. You rebuild in the minor leagues," Gardenhire said. "But I knew we were going to have to do a lot of teaching of young players, and hopefully we could get better as we went along. You know what? That's what we've done.

"... They've all come in here with open minds, and they've all gotten after the game. That's all we try to do around here, get after the game. We try to teach, and we try to play."

Gardy has a lot of respect for this team. "They're getting after it, and they're playing and they have no fear," he said. "That's all we care about around here, no fear. Go out and play the game."

Ruiz could help

Gardenhire said he believes Randy Ruiz, who spent nine seasons in the minors before getting his first major league hit on Friday, is a better fit at designated hitter than Craig Monroe, who was released Friday. "He's been the hottest hitter in the minor leagues for us. He's hitting .300 against lefties," Gardenhire said. "We needed some help against some lefties here. Monroe struggled against lefties, and we need some help against lefties and this young man has been swinging"

Ruiz, 30, who was signed as a free agent last year, had been with seven different organizations in the minors before joining Class AAA Rochester this spring.

Jottings

Michael Cuddyer, who has been sidelined because of a finger injury, had his third consecutive day of full batting practice on Friday after five weeks of healing. He hopes to go to Rochester next week for a rehab stint and be back in the Twins lineup shortly.

Twins closer Joe Nathan described teammate Justin Morneau as an MVP candidate. "It seems like any time we need a big hit, and somebody to drive in some runs, he's stepping up and clearing bases for us. It's awesome when you see that, but we all expect that everyday."

Pat Neshek, the Twins reliever out because of an elbow injury, is headed for Fort Myers, Fla., this week where he will start to rehabilitate his arm, but there is little chance he will pitch with the Twins this year.

Spencer Reeves, a Gophers linebacker from Dallas, was not among the freshmen who reported for practice on Saturday. Reeves told GopherIllustrated.com that "the main issue right now is with the NCAA Clearinghouse and my SAT scores. They canceled my last scores." The NCAA Clearinghouse oversees eligibility standards. Reeves added that he is going to miss the fall training camp and the first few games, but he is determined to solve his problems and join the team.

The Gophers men's hockey team ranked third in attendance (9,943 fans) nationally behind Wisconsin (14,133 fans) and North Dakota (11,709 fans) for the 2007-08 season. The Gophers sold out every game.

Kevin McHale, vice president of the Timberwolves, said, "We should be much better. I think last year we went through a growth period trying to figure out what we had here. We had a bunch of new players -- but as much as that, I think [Randy] Foye being hurt for the first half of the season really put us back. I think after Randy came back, we were 17-21 or something like that coming down the stretch. For a lot of these guys, familiarity is going to make us much, much better." Rob Moor, chief executive officer of the Timberwolve, said he is encouraged by the interest in the Wolves. "I think fans are supporting us right now. They're showing that they want to see this new team, this young team." New Timberwolf Mike Miller said he believes Gophers coach Tubby Smith recruited an outstanding player in Colton Iverson of Yankton, S.D. "I've seen him play a couple times, and I've seen his recruiting process," Miller said. "You guys got a great player there, a big guy that can really run the floor and can really score in transition. So, the Gophers should be excited about that one. I had a brother that played at Northern State [in Aberdeen, S.D.], Ryan Miller, who was a really good basketball player."

A big photo in Smith's office shows the proud Gophers coach with the four seniors on the team that all graduated this past year. They are Ryan Saunders, Dan Coleman, Lawrence McKenzie and Spencer Tollackson. McKenzie will play basketball in Europe next year with the FYR Macedonian Super League Champions in the Balkans. Tollackson will play in Greece and Coleman is in the process of getting a contract in Europe. ... Former St. John's basketball player Brady Brink has signed to play professional basketball in Germany.

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