When the Dodgers broke camp, Nick Punto didn’t figure to play all that much. He was a 35-year-old utility player on a team with fellow utility players Jerry Hairston Jr. and Skip Schumaker.
Yet Punto is playing so well and so hard that, coupled with injuries, he has become a regular in the Dodgers’ lineup. He has appeared in all but one of their last 27 games, started in all but four.
And he’s playing all over the infield. While starting 12 times at second base, 15 at third base and seven at shortstop, he’s hit a team-high .323. He’s hustled, he’s played smart, he’s provided a spark.
“I want to keep Nick healthy, but he’s playing so good and has given us so much energy, he’s really been hard to take out of the lineup,” said Manager Don Mattingly. “When you’re making the lineup out, it’s hard to say, ‘Don’t play Punto tonight.’”
So Punto is back in the lineup Saturday, this time at third and leading off against left-hander John Cast. Punto is batting .464 against left-handers.
The Trabuco Hills High product doesn’t have enough at-bats (96) to qualify for the batting race, or he’d be seventh among hitters in the National League.
Mark Ellis has returned at second and Hairston (groin strain) is expected to be activated from the disabled list within days, so Punto may start to get a little more rest, though his play has changed the way Mattingly wants to use him.
“The real plan is to be able to mix him and Dee [Gordon] a little bit at short, and kind of the same at third,” Mattingly said. “I’m getting Jerry back pretty soon here, and Jerry is a little bit more of an infielder in our scheme now.”
Mattingly doesn’t want to wear out the 5-foot-9 Punto and is leery of playing him every day.
“He’s playing more than he might need to, and I am worried about wearing him down,” Mattingly said.
Yet right now Punto has taken his opportunity and earned playing time. He’s one of the Dodgers’ few pleasant surprises.