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Twins find needed leader in unlikely person

The Minnesota Twins, a team desperately in need of a leader, may have found one in the unlikeliest of places.

There's no denying young studs like Justin Morneau, Joe Mauer, Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano have the talent to shine for many, many years to come. But they're young, and none has shown the personality traits required to fill that leadership slot.

Mauer is too quiet, too passive. He leads by example, but that's not always good enough. He certainly has the skill, and he could contend for the batting title for the next 10 seasons. But it's doubtful his personality ever will permit him to be a true clubhouse leader.

Morneau was the biggest All-Star game slight. This guy is on fire, hitting over .400 for the last month. He's on pace to drive in 140 runs and hit more than 40 home runs. Those are MVP-type numbers. But his personage just doesn't fit with your typical "captain."

Liriano's stuff is filthy. He already may be the best pitcher in baseball, though fans should be cautious to put too much stock in any rookie. Liriano must show the same lights-out arsenal in his sophomore season. But he's a quiet guy, too, and there's no way a rookie can be a team leader. He just hasn't experienced enough to demonstrate those qualities.

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When talking about the best pitchers in the game, Santana is at or near the top of every list. But he is much like Mauer, Morneau and Liriano -- he has all the talent in the world, but he's quiet and reserved and seems unwilling to step into a leadership role.

While everyone seems so focused on these young guns, a new leader quietly has stepped to the forefront.

That player is Nick Punto.

Yeah, that's right, Nick Punto.

At the beginning of the season, Punto was on a similar talent level with a player like Lew Ford. To be honest, I thought the guy was the second coming of Denny Hocking.

Now, Punto has become indispensable.

With regulars like Torii Hunter and Shannon Stewart out of the lineup, the Twins need Punto more than ever. And he's risen to the challenge in every way.

Case in point: During Tuesday's game against Tampa Bay, Punto called a meeting at the mound with Liriano and the rest of the infield. He said all the right things, and he even made Liriano crack a smile. Punto took charge, and he forced Liriano to take a few extra seconds to collect his thoughts and to rest up -- this was all on display for fans thanks to some nifty camera work by FSN, North.

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Punto's versatility is undeniable. He can play almost every position, sort of a poor man's Chone Figgins, though I'd argue Punto has been better than Figgins over the past month.

But for most of his career, Punto has been nothing more than a little-used utility player. It's tough to be a clubhouse leader if you're not playing well, and in the past, Punto's leadership qualities may have been overshadowed by his lackluster numbers.

Now, however, he's getting the job done in the clubhouse and in the batter's box.

In his last 10 games, Punto has hit .486 with nine RBIs and five runs scored. He's raised his season average over .320, and his on-base percentage is almost .400.

This is a guy who has been in and out of the big leagues since 2001. He came up with the Phillies, and in December 2003, the Twins traded Eric Milton to Philadelphia for Carlos Silva, Punto and a player to be named.

At the time, the Twins were just trying to dump Milton's hefty salary. And so far this season, that trade has been overshadowed by a deal that was done a month earlier, the one that put Joe Nathan, Boof Bonser and Liriano in Twins uniforms.

But that deal shouldn't be overlooked.

Punto is a major reason the Twins have kept winning games with key players out of the lineup.

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It's been a long time since the Twins have had a true leader in the clubhouse. And it appears they've finally found a personality to fill that role.

Ben Pherson is a sports writer for the Post-Bulletin. He can be reached at bpherson@postbulletin.com.

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