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Punto brings a lot to Sox

Numbers can’t tell utilityman’s story

By Peter Abraham
Globe Staff / March 16, 2012
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - Nick Punto was a one-man receiving line on Thursday afternoon, standing behind the batting cage at JetBlue Park and exchanging handshakes or hugs with nearly every member of the St. Louis Cardinals who passed by on the way to their dugout.

Punto spent only one season with St. Louis but left a deep impression with his versatility on the field and the ability to fit in comfortably in every corner of the clubhouse.

In a game where talent can be measured by precise statistical metrics, Punto is a player whose value is harder to calculate but can’t be denied.

“He’s a guy you want on your team, that’s the best way I can say it,’’ reliever Kyle McClellan said before the Cardinals beat the Red Sox, 9-6. “It seems like he’s always doing the right thing.’’

The 34-year-old Punto hit .278 with an .809 OPS for St. Louis. He played mostly second base but also started games at shortstop and third base. The Red Sox envision him in a similar role this season.

“I certainly hope so,’’ said manager Bobby Valentine, who plans to use Punto at first base, too. “He looks like he can make all the plays.’’

That Punto arrives in Boston a season after the team suffered a historic collapse is no coincidence. General manager Ben Cherington saw value in having a player who could provide leadership along with versatility.

The Cardinals were 10 1/2 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the National League wild card race in August. Punto played a significant role in their comeback, hitting .308 in September with a .924 OPS.

“Last year, when we were down by as many games as we were, it was still fun to come to the field every day thanks to guys like Nick. He kept everything loose,’’ McClellan said. “I don’t think we pull off what we did without that.’’

St. Louis outfielder John Jay believes the Red Sox made a smart move when they signed Punto to a two-year, $3 million deal in December.

“His personality will help that team, you watch,’’ Jay said. “He’s great around younger guys. Nick had a lot of respect in our clubhouse.

“He cares a lot about his teammates. That was something he showed us, how to be there for your teammates.’’

That was the biggest complaint former Sox manager Terry Francona had on his way out, that the players weren’t there for each other when the season started to turn sour. Punto is a player who can help change that.

“Nick’s presence in that clubhouse means a lot. He’s a guy who has been around and knows the game,’’ McClellan said. “In the time I’ve been in the big leagues, he’s the smartest player I’ve played with.’’

Punto learned that part of the game from being around players like Jim Thome when he was coming up with the Phillies, and later when they were teammates in Minnesota.

“You spend more time with your teammates during the season than you do with your wife and kids. I try to enjoy that time. There’s no other way for me to approach it,’’ Punto said.

“You snap your fingers and now I’m in that role that Thome was for me. I’ve embraced that and hopefully I pass it down. There always is a place for veterans. Teams are getting younger and younger but you need to have that veteran presence and have somebody to show you the way.’’

Red Sox third baseman Kevin Youkilis, who has known Punto for several years, is another believer.

“He’s going to do a lot for our team. It’s definitely a step in the right direction,’’ Youkilis said. “He’s been a winner.’’

Punto also has an alter ego known as “The Shredder.’’

In the clubhouse, or during flights, he will surprise an unsuspecting teammate by yanking down on the collar of their dress shirt and tearing it off. It’s a way to have some fun.

“He’s a character. He’s a lot of fun to be around,’’ said Cardinals righthander Kyle Lohse, a teammate of Punto’s in Minnesota and St. Louis. “He definitely knows the time and place. If you’ve been around long enough you know the time and the place, when it’s time to have fun, and when to be serious.’’

For Punto, health will determine to what degree he can influence the Red Sox on the field. He played only 63 games last season because of three lengthy stays on the disabled list.

Punto did not get into a game in spring training while recovering from surgery to repair a hernia. The Cardinals activated him April 19 and used Punto regularly at second base before he strained a flexor muscle in his forearm. That cost him five weeks.

Punto returned in late June and lasted only a month before straining an oblique. That landed him back on the DL for another five weeks.

“It was a mental grind going through the injuries like that,’’ Punto said. “When I finally did get healthy I started playing well and fought my way into the lineup.’’

Despite getting only 35 plate appearances in September, Punto appeared in 15 of St. Louis’s 18 postseason games and helped the Cardinals win the World Series.

Now he starts again with the Red Sox.

“Just having a normal spring training and getting a chance to train has been nice,’’ said Punto. “You train hard in the offseason but you need spring training to get baseball strong.

“I’ll hopefully be valuable in whatever role they want me to be. I’ll embrace any role. I’m at the stage of my career where I just want to win. After getting a taste of that last year I want to win again with this team.’’

Peter Abraham can be reached at pabraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.

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