Former utility man finds a home at third

Former utility man finds a home at third

Former utility man finds a home at third
MINNEAPOLIS -- It's been quite the turnaround for Trevor Plouffe.

Plouffe entered his start against the Tigers on May 16 batting just .133, with one homer and a .505 OPS in 35 games.

But since then, Plouffe has been one of the hottest hitters in the Majors. He leads all of baseball with 13 homers over that stretch, and he is hitting .315 with a 1.157 OPS in 24 games.

It's been the type of production the Twins were hoping to see from the former first-round Draft pick, as he's become another feared hitter in the lineup alongside Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Josh Willingham and Ryan Doumit.

But if you ask Plouffe to describe what's been different over that stretch, he says it's difficult to put into words.

"It's hard to explain," Plouffe said. "I'm just trying to ride the wave as long as possible. I'm trying to help the team win. I'm putting good swings on pitches, laying off pitches, getting myself into better counts."

One thing that's certainly changed is his consistent playing time at third base over the last month. He began the season in a super-utility role, seeing time at second base, shortstop, left field, right field and first base.

But now he's firmly entrenched as the club's everyday third baseman, and it's given him a chance to settle in and get regular at-bats.

"I guess it has to help," Plouffe said. "That was my goal coming into the season. I was going to be kind of a utility guy, and I was fine with that. Moving around was OK. Settling in at third base is something that seems like it's working for now. But later in the season, it's OK if I have to move."

One adjustment he's made is that he's jumped on pitches early in counts, as seven of his 14 homers have come on either the first or second pitch of his at-bats.

He's been on fire in June because of that approach, as his nine homers lead the Majors. He's also hitting .389 with a Major League-best 1.422 OPS over that span.

It's been an eye-popping power display from Plouffe, who proved he could hit the long ball last season when he smacked 15 homers at Triple-A Rochester and eight homers with the Twins.

"It's pretty amazing, to tell you the truth," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "It seems like every night, he hits one. It's a pretty amazing feat. He's a guy who's pretty locked in, and seeing it pretty good."

Plouffe has impressed his opponents as well, as Brewers manager Ron Roenicke showered praise his way after Plouffe's first multi-homer game of his career on Friday.

Plouffe's longtime friend, Ryan Braun, who was the National League's Most Valuable Player last season, also is in awe of what Plouffe has done over the last month. But he joked that it's his mission to out-homer him this season, as Braun is tied for the NL lead in homers with 19.

"I have to make sure he doesn't pass me in homers, or I'll never hear the end of it," Braun said. "That's my motivation -- to not allow Trevor Plouffe to pass me in home runs, which is not easy to do."

Plouffe, who turned 26 on Friday, played with Braun's younger brother, Steve, growing up, and has known the 28-year-old Brewers slugger for about 15 years.

He trains with Braun during the offseason at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., and said he leans on the four-time All-Star for advice, even if it's not about baseball.

"We don't talk about baseball that much, to be honest with you," Plouffe said. "But if we do, it's about the mental side. He's a guy that's obviously supremely confident in his abilities, as he should be. That's something that he's tried to instill in me. It's tough to be confident when you're not having success all the time. That's something that you have to have in this game at this level. You have to be able to trust your routine, and be confident in your skill set."

Braun's influence seems to have paid off, as Plouffe has also matured over the last year. He's reluctant to talk about his recent success, as he'd rather talk about the team's improved play.

The Twins have scuffled recently, losing four of their last five games, but the team won 10 of 13 before that skid.

"This year I really bought into [focusing on the team]," Plouffe said. "Not that I didn't last year. I wanted to win last year for sure. But that's one thing that Morneau has really pressed into my mind -- it's not about one guy, it's about everyone coming together. And as the saying goes, a rising tide raises all ships.

"So we're rooting for each other, and everyone has each other's backs. When hitters around you are hitting and [are] on base all the time, it's going to put the pressure on the pitcher, and therefore you get better pitches to hit."

Rhett Bollinger is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Bollinger Beat, and follow him on Twitter @RhettBollinger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.