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Middle ground

Punto, Castro duo giving Twins a lift

MINNEAPOLIS

Nick Punto dived into first base, getting a face full of dirt and sunflower seed shells before wrapping his arms around the bag. He was safe.

"If the knucklehead wants to do it, just go ahead and keep doing it," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said afterward. "It kind of gets the fans excited. I just don't want to see him come out with a busted-up shoulder or fingers."

This is a complete turnaround from Gardenhire's previous position, which was: "Stop that, you idiot!"

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"It's part of his makeup," Gardenhire says now.

Punto, who I thought would be dead or disabled by this point in the season, provided quite a spark Sunday. He recorded three hits and one very good play in the field. He plays the game as if there is horse liniment in his underwear -- always jumping, diving and sliding.

Smooth shortstop Juan Castro also had a good game, chipping in with a hit and sacrifice bunt.

It should be considered quite an accomplishment that the Twins have managed to stay within shouting range of the red-hot Chicago White Sox. The Sox are having one of those incredible starts that often result in a team running away and hiding from its division by June.

Yet the Twins have kept relatively close despite a middle infield that remains in flux as we approach the one-quarter mark.

First, Luis Rivas lost the second base job to Punto. At least for the time being. And now it looks as if Jason Bartlett's hold on the shortstop position is slipping away. Castro may be the everyday guy before much longer. For the first time, Castro played back-to-back games this weekend.

Asked if Castro would get a third straight start on Tuesday against Toronto, Gardenhire wouldn't commit.

"I'll see how I feel Tuesday," he said. "I'm going to put a winning team out there. I'm not worried about people's feelings too much. On Tuesday, I'll play our best team."

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Said Castro: "Two games in a row, that's good. It's always better when you play more. Not just for me, for everybody. You can't do anything on the bench."

Castro would have been the Opening Day shortstop if he had a halfway decent training camp. But he made an incredible seven errors in Grapefruit League games. Everyone said they didn't put any stock in that, but clearly they did.

Bartlett, a good hitter yet rough around the edges in the field, started looking better and better. Now he is struggling at bat and at short. Castro has reverted to the sure-handed fielder the Twins thought they were getting when they signed him over the winter.

And the shortstop position is unsettled as the Twins aren't sure if they want to sacrifice the future for the present.

Punto entered this season with a well-deserved reputation for being injury prone. He was always popping, breaking or snapping something. Part of it had to do with his break-neck style, which the Twins tried unsuccessfully to alter.

Once the season started, Punto did so well in small doses that he took over permanently for the perpetually slumping Rivas. So far, he has provided a lift while managing to stay in one piece.

Meanwhile, Bartlett needs to play in order to develop. If not here, somewhere.

A team that is one outfielder short is carrying four middle infielders. But at least the Twins no longer carry 14 catchers, including the immortal Corky Miller.

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If Castro and Punto end up being the primary double-play combination, then Terry Ryan will need to look hard at adjusting his roster.

Besides, an outfielder with some pop would look really good on the Twins bench.

Tom Powers is a columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

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