Instead, Punto watched as his offense disappeared. He hit just .220 in the first month of the season and things never really improved from there.Punto's struggles weren't helped by the fact that he was battling through a strained oblique muscle for part of the year. It was an injury that likely would have sidelined him earlier in his career, but Punto remained on the field and made the dynamic defensive plays at third that people were accustomed to seeing. He just could not get the offense going. "You struggle in April, and you're like, 'People struggle in April,'" Punto said. "You start struggling in May -- people do in May, too -- but you start getting into June, July and August and you start to forget where you were. You get lost and everything just starts to snowball." The hitting advice for Punto came from every direction, although Twins hitting coach Joe Vavra said it wasn't so much about the mechanical issues. The two spent plenty of time looking over video of Punto's swing. But in the end, it was Punto's mind that Vavra thinks hindered him. "His cage routine and everything else was totally different than the game," Vavra said. "It's just that he got deeper and deeper into frustration. It's hard to slow down and go through the process because that first at-bat comes up, they make an out and they think, 'Here we go again.' "And emotionally you just drain yourself." Punto's struggling offense quickly became the subject of jokes from the local media and the national press as well. Taking that sort of criticism is never easy, but Punto said that he put more pressure on himself than anyone else did. "I've never struggled like that any time in my life," Punto said. "It was hard, but it's such a good learning experience, too. If you can get through that, you can get through anything." Shortstop Adam Everett has a better understanding than most of what Punto endured over the last year. Everett has long been regarded as one of the better defensive players in the game, but following a few rough years at the plate, he's been labeled as a "glove-only" type player. "It stinks that you can get labeled in the game so quickly," Everett said. "For you to get rid of labels, it's really, really hard. But you have to have thick skin to play this game, and rather than listen to anyone else, you have to know your own ability." Punto is determined to try to shed the label he earned last season. He said that he was able to enter the offseason with a more positive frame of mind thanks to a strong September. Punto hit .286 that month, with a .324 on-base percentage. It allowed him to take some time off early in the winter and try to clear his mind of all the thoughts he'd kept there during his rough season. He said he prepared himself to come into this spring with yet another challenge ahead of him: to win back a starting job, this time at second base. Punto received some pretty stiff competition when the Twins acquired infielder Brendan Harris in their six-player trade with Tampa Bay. Punto knows what it will take to earn it. "Now I'm fighting to get back in that lineup as I should be," Punto said. "I should not be handed anything. "Bottom line is you have to hit to stay in the Major Leagues. So I need to hit."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less