Mauer, Morneau: Punto a favorite teammate

MINNEAPOLIS — Nick Punto spent just one season at Target Field before leaving the Minnesota Twins organization, but he admitted it was weird to be in the visiting clubhouse for the first time Monday as his Boston Red Sox were in town to face his old squad.

“It’s always good to come back and see the guys, even though there’s only a few of them that I played with,” Punto said prior to Monday’s game. “There’s been a lot of turnover, but it’s always good to come back. There’s a lot of great memories here.”

Punto is still very well liked in Minnesota’s clubhouse. Even clubhouse attendant Wayne “Big Fella” Hattaway made sure to pass along a greeting to Punto.

There aren’t many players left on the Twins’ roster, however, that played with Punto during his seven years in Minnesota. But those that are still around spoke highly of the Twins’ former utility infielder.

“He was a great guy. Whether he was playing third or short or second, he was always good defensively and always gave us a chance to win ballgames,” said first baseman Justin Morneau. “When he wasn’t playing, he was always in the game. He was always on the bench cheering on his teammates. He was one of my favorite teammates of all time.”

Added catcher Joe Mauer: “Nicky was always one of my favorite teammates of guys that I played with. He’s definitely well-liked around here.”

Punto watched from afar as Mauer and Morneau missed plenty of time last season for the Twins, who wound up losing 99 games. As hard as it was to see his former team struggle, Punto knows what Minnesota is capable of when its big bats are healthy.

With Mauer and Morneau leading the way, the Twins won the American League Central four times in Punto’s seven years in Minnesota, including his final year with the Twins in 2010. But as Punto was busy helping the Cardinals win a World Series, Mauer and Morneau were on the disabled list for much of the 2011 season.

“Without Mauer and Morneau healthy, it’s going to be tough for these guys ever to win,” Punto said. “In my tenure here for seven years, we had Mauer and Morneau healthy. That’s why we were as good as we were, in my opinion.”

Punto said Monday that his agent spoke with the Twins a bit this offseason, but there wasn’t much interest from Minnesota in bringing him back after he spent last season with the St. Louis Cardinals. Instead, he signed a two-year deal with the Red Sox.

After playing 125 games for the Twins in 2009, Punto has seen his playing time slowly dwindle as he gets into the later stage of his career. Now 34, Punto has mainly served as a backup infielder so far this season with Boston. A year ago, he played in just 63 games with the Cardinals, partially due to injuries — he missed 36 games due to a strained oblique and also missed time with a sports hernia and a forearm injury.

Despite the injuries last season, Punto inked a two-year deal reportedly worth $3 million. So far, Punto’s new teammates are glad he signed with Boston, as he brings another World Series ring to a team that’s had pretty good success in recent years.

“He’s done it for a long time,” said Boston infielder Dustin Pedroia. “He’s definitely a valuable part to a winning team. We’re happy to have him.”

Punto wasn’t in the lineup for Monday’s series opener at Target Field, his first game here as a visitor. He’s played in just seven of Boston’s first 15 games this year, including just three starts. But Punto said he’s already embraced his new, albeit more limited role with his new team.

“Just prepare to play baseball. That’s pretty much what I did all offseason,” Punto said. “If you’re a role player or not, you’ve still got to be prepared to play baseball. Over here, there’s guys that play every day. That’s just part of it. I’m going to prepare just like I do every season.”

Punto spent just one season in St. Louis after leaving Minnesota, but it was a memorable one. He and the Cardinals beat the Texas Rangers in the World Series. Punto started five of the World Series games and was on the field for the final out of Game 7, a 6-2 Cardinals victory.

“It was incredible. It’s something I wish everybody could experience,” Punto said. “That’s the ultimate high is being world champs. … However many stories you hear of how cool it is, until you experience it; it’s tenfold better than what people say it is.”

That high, that feeling of being world champs is something Punto’s former Twins teammates are still searching for.

“I send him a text over there. I said if it wasn’t me, I’m happy it was him,” Mauer said of the World Series. “The guy works his butt off and works really hard at the game. It’s nice to see him get rewarded like that.”

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