After countless failures, Kirk Nieuwenhuis finally seized the moment
When the season began, the Mets envisioned Kirk Nieuwnehuis as their ace left-handed bat off the bench who could come up late in games and provide a big hit in the form of a punch.
It didn’t exactly work out that way at the beginning. He started his season in a 3-for-38 skid with just about half as many strikeouts as at-bats. That performance landed him off the team and traded to the Angels in early June.
“It was a tough run there pinch-hitting at the beginning of the season,” Nieuwenhuis said on Tuesday night.
But just a few short weeks later, the Angels designated Nieuwenhuis for assignment, leaving him at a major crossroads in his professional life.
Would someone pick him up? Would he ever play in the big leagues again? Those were questions going through Nieuwenhuis’ mind, he explained when he rejoined the team in early July.
But the Mets came knocking once again, this time putting in a waiver claim for Nieuwenhuis.
So here he was, back in the organization. At the time, Nieuwenhuis was nothing more than an organizational player, someone who had to earn his way back onto the 40-man roster and into the big leagues.
His chance came in early July with the team in San Francisco. Only this time, he wasn’t going to let the opportunity fall by the wayside.
Less than a week later, Nieuwenhuis became the first Met in club history to slug three home runs in a single home game.
It was a remarkable chain of events leading to that moment. But that wouldn’t be his greatest achievement this season.
Not by a long shot, in retrospect anyway.
On Tuesday, after the Mets staged a remarkable comeback in the seventh inning to erase a six-run deficit, Nieuwenhuis stepped into the batters box against Nationals closer Jonathan Papelbon as a pinch hitter for Addison Reed.
As is the case in a lot of games this time of year, what matters is how the individual handles the moment and the opportunity to make a difference.
And in a game in which one single moment could be the difference between a four-game and a six-game lead, in a game that could define the race in the National League East over the final 24 games of the regular season, Nieuwenhuis embraced his moment and instantly dwarfed his achievement at Citi Field two months earlier.
He sent a fastball into the stands in right field to give the Mets their first lead of the night, erasing the hopes and dreams of a remarkable comeback from the Nationals in the National League East.
“Papelbon has got a great splitter. I didn’t really want to stick around for that,” Nieuwenhuis explained. “Thankfully I got my pitch early. I was just kind of looking for something in, middle or middle in. His ball can run sometimes quite a bit off the plate. I got my pitch, and thankfully put a good swing on it.”
Right then and there, it was six games instead of four. Moment defined.
Perhaps career defined as well.
It was Nieuwenhuis’ first pinch-hit home run of the year. The Mets might have expected it to come earlier – way earlier – but better late than never.
“When I first came to this organization as the field coordinator, I fell in love with the way [Nieuwenhuis] plays,” Terry Collins said after the game. “Everybody thought this guy was going to be a great player. He’s had a lot of injuries to different parts of his body, his shoulders especially.
“Tonight, to be a part of this, I’m real happy for him,” the manager said.
The trials Nieuwenhuis has encountered over the years, between both injury and underperformance, have been well chronicled. And it’s not often a player is sold to another club, bought back, and then makes a season-defining contribution on a big stage the way Nieuwenhuis did and against a pitcher of Papelbon’s caliber at that.
On this day, Nieuwenhuis seized his newfound chance with the Mets, and ran with it back to a raucous dugout following his dramatic home run.
“This is such a fun team to be on,” Nieuwenhuis said smiling at his locker after Tuesday’s win. “This stretch run is going to be a lot of fun.”
Nieuwnehuis has posted a 1.101 OPS in 51 plate appearances since returning to the Mets in early July. It seems as though a good chunk of those plate appearances have been meaningful – he has 11 RBI since returning.
But it was only one of those RBI might have really meant everything to the Mets, and Nieuwenhuis this season.
Carpe diem. That’s playoff baseball.