FORT MYERS, FLA. - Hitting slumps have been known to cause ulcers, divorces and male pattern baldness. In Nick Punto's case, the worst slump of his -- or perhaps any -- career caused a jutting of the lower jaw.

Punto's slump in 2007 prompted the Twins to acquire three infielders so they wouldn't have to depend on him in 2008. Punto is determined to make them depend on him in 2008.

He's the most logical candidate to become the Twins utility infielder this season, but he's hardly conceding the starting second base job to newcomer Brendan Harris. Asked if he's "OK" with coming off the bench, Punto said: "No. That's not OK. I feel like I should be out there playing. If you ask me my personal goal, it's to be the leadoff hitter for this team. I plan to go out there and compete for the job and maybe be our leadoff hitter in April."

For a player who hit .210 with 25 RBI, those comments would seem foolhardy if Punto hadn't earned so much admiration in the Twins clubhouse last year by playing through injuries, and if he hadn't hit .290 in 2006.

"I love Nicky, man," said catcher Mike Redmond. "He brings so much energy to our team. He's a great guy. He plays hard. Nobody wants to see a guy struggle, but he impressed us all with the way he went out there and kept grinding it out. For him, that was huge, and for all of us, in terms of respect, he's off the charts."

Punto played through an oblique strain that might have sidelined him earlier in his career and made spectacular fielding plays at second, short and third. "You've got a guy here who plays Gold Glove defense at three different positions," Redmond said. "You put him at any of those positions, and it's like he's played there all year. I've never seen a guy who's able to do that. Never. And I've played with some great middle infielders."

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Punto's season was that he became a punching bag for fans and a punch line for writers, yet he never offered excuses or complained. Unlike most people, he was at his best when he was at his worst.

"To say it was easy would be a complete lie," Punto said. "I struggled with myself on a daily basis. I'm my worst critic. You guys are nothing compared to what I do to myself.

"I just felt like I always had to be there for my teammates, and I wanted that respect. That's what I want more than anything in this game, is to be known as a great team player, and a guy that you want to be around, and a winner.

"Ultimately, if you're known for that, that's a pretty good career. Is that enough? No. I want to hit .300. But it's also very important to me that these 25 guys have my back."

Punto spent the winter working on hitting and conditioning at Athletes Performance Institute in Arizona. Last year, he admits, he wore out Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra, who often stayed late with him on Sunday afternoons instead of heading home to his family. Punto also got advice from his dad and every one of his teammates, not to mention free, extra-salty tips from fans.

"It's nice to know everyone cares, but it can definitely get a little cloudy," Punto said. "Reflecting on my offseason, that's the one thing I said -- I'm going to know my swing, and I'm going to stick with it whether it's going good or bad.

"I've got my swing back. It was always there. That's the crazy thing about baseball. It was never mechanical, and it never really is with hitters. Once you get to this level, you should know how to hit."

Why didn't we ever see him snap during the season? "Oh, there were plenty of snaps," he said. "I did break a bat over my knee. I didn't know I could do that. I probably could have hurt myself. I won't be doing that again."

On most teams, Punto's bad year would eliminate him from consideration for a starting job, but Twins manager Ron Gardenhire loves fielding, and loves players he finds integral to his clubhouse.

Every day at camp you can hear Redmond screaming, "Attaboy Nicky!" across the fields after seeing Punto make a play. "If I'm teaching my kids how to play the game, I'm telling them to watch Nicky," Redmond said. "Watch the energy he brings out there. Watch how he's into every pitch. Watch the great plays that he makes.

"We needed his energy and his glove out there."

As one Twin said of Rondell White last year, though, "Nice guys have to get hits, too."

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. •