Technically, the ball was already past Eduardo Nunez when the Twins shortstop got his glove on it. Jose Bautista’s 10th-inning chopper up the middle last month was inches from the grass, the tiebreaking runner was already halfway home and Nunez’s desperate, well-timed lunge was all that stood between a spirit-crushing extra-inning deficit and the third out of the inning.
His work wasn’t done. As Bautista raced toward first, Nunez spun on the ground, propped himself up on his right knee and fired across the infield, one-hopping a throw to Joe Mauer just in time to snuff out Toronto’s inning.
“I practice that play,” Nunez said. “If you’re in a hurry, tough throw, I bounce the ball to make it easier to catch. Easier to throw, easier to catch, everything easier.”
Everything certainly looks easier for Nunez this year, the once-anticipated, long-delayed, frequently doubted breakthrough season that the Dominican infielder always believed was coming, even when no one else did. He is not the Twins’ fastest player, but he might be their best base-stealer, successful on 80 percent of his attempts this year and 79 percent for his career. He has always had average defensive range but has mostly eliminated the throwing and ballhandling mistakes that caused the Yankees to change their mind about him.
And at the plate, Nunez has been a startling find amid a self-destructing offense, the rose in a garden overgrown with weeds. His .335 batting average ranks fourth in the American League; his 18 extra-base hits are second-most on the Twins; his .879 OPS is best on the team by 80 points. Nunez is the Twins’ most productive hitter this season, and arguably their most valuable, too.
All this from a player who got exactly one at-bat in the season’s first five games. Even his manager didn’t expect the guy sitting on the bench for two years to flourish so completely.
“I wouldn’t have thought, coming out of spring training, that I would be looking for ways to give Nunez days off,” Paul Molitor said. “That’s kind of how it’s changed.”
Well, yes and no. Certainly his circumstances have changed, his value and playing time have changed. Nunez will likely surpass his highest plate appearance total with the Twins (213 in 2014) by the end of the current homestand, barely a third of the way into the season. Now ensconced as the leadoff hitter, he will exceed each of his career highs in short order, all while rotating between shortstop (his original and still favorite position), third base and second base.
But “I’m the same player,” Nunez insists. “I just have more opportunity. You can prove more, you can show more of what I can do.”
Funny thing is, he came into spring training trying to be someone different. He has more strength than a typical middle infielder yet had never hit more than five home runs in a season, and that was five years ago. So while working with a Dominican hitting coach last winter, he changed his swing in hopes of generating more power.
“He showed me some different things, and I tried it in spring training. And I didn’t have any consistency and I didn’t have any power,” Nunez said. He tripled during the second exhibition game of the spring, then didn’t have another extra-base hit the rest of March. Suddenly, he realized his roster spot might be at stake.
“I told [hitting coach Tom Brunansky] that I don’t want to try this anymore,” he said of his adjustments. “We worked the last week of spring training” to go back to his original, coiled, pounce-on-a-strike style, “and I’m still doing that.”
That’s the style that Trevor Plouffe noticed when they were both starting shortstops in Class AAA, Plouffe at Rochester and Nunez at Scranton-Wilkes Barre, the Yankees’ next-Derek-Jeter-in-waiting. “Never pulled the ball, not once. He would hit rockets to right field and center field,” Plouffe recalled. “You see when he gets comfortable — you see how potent he can be. He looks really comfortable, and that’s what every hitter strives to get to during a season. He’s found it, and he’s stayed locked in.”
So is this a two-month hot streak, or a turn-the-corner moment? The statistics say Nunez is benefiting from a spike in his batting average on balls in play; it’s .367 this year, a considerable improvement over his lifetime .304 average, suggesting that the increase might be hard to sustain. His lack of walks, too — six in 182 plate appearances — hint that his surge may not last.
The Yankees, after all, spent four years grooming him to succeed Jeter whenever their Hall of Fame shortstop was ready to retire, then abruptly traded him for little-known pitcher Miguel Sulbaran when his defensive shortcomings spooked them.
Even Molitor, who two weeks ago appointed Nunez his leadoff hitter and left him there, isn’t ready to declare the decision permanent.
“It’s a slippery slope, as far as trying to project a guy that’s been in that role and has played well for a couple of months. If you base it on how he’s performing, it’s easy to speculate [that] he could be on that track,” Molitor said. “But I think it’s too early for that. I’m hopeful for him — that would be great for our team, would be great for his career. He’s just kind of riding it right now.”
But Nunez is confident, even serene, he said. The change is opportunity, not skill level.
“When you play every day, your swing and timing is better. … Your fielding is better. Your running is better,” he said. “Play one day a week, you can’t be that player. But here I am.”
Staff writer La Velle E. Neal III contributed to this report.