Twins’ patience in Plouffe paying dividends

MINNEAPOLIS — There were times earlier this season when Minnesota’s Trevor Plouffe looked lost at the plate.

After going 0-for-3 against Cleveland on May 14, his batting average dipped to .133. He was still drawing walks, as was evident by his .288 on-base percentage at the time, but the hits just weren’t coming.

Even so, the Twins didn’t give up on Plouffe, instead continuing to put him in the lineup. Now the results are slowly starting to pay off, as Plouffe’s bat is heating up. He drove in four runs in Saturday’s 11-3 win over the visiting Chicago Cubs, including his ninth home run of the season.

“I’m getting good pitches to hit,” Plouffe said. “I think I’m working myself into some good counts. Hitting strikes is what it’s about. You don’t want to chase those pitches. I think earlier in the season, I was doing that.”

When Plouffe was struggling offensively earlier this year, he was also without a true position defensively. A year ago, Plouffe spent most of his time at shortstop but committed 11 errors at that position in just 45 games. The Twins converted Plouffe to an outfielder prior to this season, but he has since moved back to the infield. In his last 14 games, Plouffe has made 11 starts at third base, including one Saturday.

Though he struggled to make the throw to first base on a consistent basis as a shortstop last year, Plouffe seems to have the throw from third to first under control this season. He exhibited that in Saturday’s game against the Cubs, barehanding a slow roller off the bat of Steve Clevenger and firing to first to record the final out of an inning.

“It’s a lot different throw,” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. “Out there, you’re moving all over the place, a lot more different angles at shortstop than you have at third base. This is more straightforward, catch the ball, straight across the diamond for the most part. …

“He’s athletic. The guy was a shortstop. It’s just about making the plays you’re supposed to make, and he’s been doing that, too.”

Third base is more of a reactionary position, Plouffe said, and that’s exactly what that bare-handed play was.

“You go after that ball and you just let the play happen,” Plouffe said. “… Shortstop, you have a lot of time to field it. Third base is kind of read it off the bat, field it and throw it. I think that kind of suits me more as a player. It feels good right now. Right now I’m playing well and looking forward to continuing it.”

Perhaps more impressive than his defensive improvement has been the resurgence of Plouffe’s bat. His four RBI Saturday give him nine in seven June games. He’s also homered in back-to-back games, going deep in Friday’s win and hitting a solo blast Saturday. Plouffe’s nine home runs on the season are third most on the Twins, trailing only Josh Willingham (11) and Justin Morneau (10).

“I hope he passes me,” Willingham said.

But the solo homer Saturday wasn’t Plouffe’s biggest hit. He helped break the game open in a six-run fourth inning. His ground rule double to straightaway center field drove in Justin Morneau and Ryan Doumit, giving Minnesota a 4-0 lead. Plouffe later came around to score on a double by Denard Span.

Plouffe’s other RBI came in the second inning when his groundout scored the first run of the game. It was part of his second multi-RBI game this month.

“He’s coming up with a lot of men in scoring position and a lot of people out there,” Gardenhire said. “He’s right behind the big guys who have been getting on base. We’ve talked about he needs to produce in these situations, and he’s doing it.”

The Twins have gotten rather consistent production of late from Joe Mauer, Morneau and Willingham. But to add Plouffe’s bat to that mix makes Minnesota an even deeper team. Plouffe batted seventh Saturday, behind the likes of Mauer, Morneau, Willingham and Ryan Doumit.

“It’s always good to have people hitting up and down the lineup,” Willingham said. “We’re a lot more balanced as an offense. … Our lineup is good. It’s deep.”

Added Gardenhire: “He’s backing up the middle part of the lineup, the guys have been hitting the ball for us. He’s going to come up in some big situations. Production out of that spot in the lineup is huge.”

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