BY JOE RINI
“It’s good to be back,” the recently reacquired Kirk Nieuwenhuis told me after batting practice on Saturday.
About 24 hours later, Mets fans were thrilled to have him back when the 27-year old outfielder became only the tenth Mets player to hit three home runs in one game and the first to do it in a home game as he powered the Mets to a 5-3 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday, July 12.
The road to his three home run game was a circuitous one for Nieuwenhuis. Starting the season as a reserve outfielder and pinch hitter for the Mets, Nieuwenhuis struggled at the plate and was sold to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on May 27 only to be re-signed by the Mets and optioned to Triple-A Las Vegas after the Angels waived him before being recalled by the big club on July 6.
The role of being the left-handed pinch hitter is not an easy one, especially for a young player trying to stick in the majors where every at bat is magnified. During a game, Nieuwenhuis said he’ll take batting practice in the indoor batting cage to get his timing down, trying not to get too caught up in each at bat and to “let the chips fall where they may” because mentally it’s important not to “overanalyze” or put too much pressure on each at bat.
Yet after a respectable 2014, Nieuwenhuis struggled from the outset of 2015. Looking back, he said he was “stiff at the plate…putting too much pressure on mechanics” when he needed to keep “everything moving and loose.” He added, “You have to trust your abilities and preparation.”
When I asked how does a player not get affected by negative comments and jokingly mentioned flipping on the car radio and hearing a caller complain, “How could Nieuwenhuis swing at the first pitch?” he smiled and said as a player you try to stay away from negativity but, “It’s great that fans care enough” about the Mets to complain.
He said it’s great to play in New York and see “people wearing the team colors…it’s cool to see people paying attention.” He’s enjoyed watching how fans react to 1986 Mets hero Wally Backman and he laughingly recalled being with Ike Davis a couple of years ago and seeing Davis get batting tips from someone in a Dunkin Donuts.
With the Mets entering the All-Star break in second place and within striking distance of a playoff spot, Nieuwenhuis said, “It’s fun to come to the park,” mentioning how the two teams in the 2014 World Series made the playoffs as wildcards, adding possibilities to the playoff chase.
When asked about his goals for the second half of the season, Nieuwenhuis modestly mentioned taking things, “One day at a time,” and keeping on an even keel whether going 3 for 3 or 0 for 3. Kirk Nieuwenhuis’ attitude appears to be paying dividends since his July call-up, but if any slumping, superstitious players notice that we spoke on the day before his big day and want to chat with me for luck, I’m available.
Jacob deGrom was the Mets lone representative in the American League’s 6-3 victory in the Mid-Summer Classic, but he distinguished himself by striking out the side on only 10 pitches in the sixth inning. Having won seven of nine before the break, the Mets resume play on the road on Friday, July 17 and their next 10 games will be against the “varsity” teams – the first place Cardinals, Nationals, and Dodgers.