- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2008

During the first 17 years of his life growing up in Puerto Rico, and during the last 13 years of his life bouncing around three organizations and more minor-league cities than he’d like to remember, Wil Nieves couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like to hit his first big-league home run.

In all likelihood, it would come in a meaningless situation, a garbage-time blast into the bleachers. It certainly wouldn’t be memorable to anyone other than himself and his wife, Yormarie.

A game-ending homer in front of a packed ballpark to spark his team to victory? No way.

“Not at all,” Nieves said. “You never expect that it’s going to be a walk-off.”

So when lightning did strike last night at Nationals Park, with Nieves sending an 0-2 pitch from Chicago Cubs reliever Bob Howry into the right-field bullpen to give Washington a 5-3 victory, this light-hitting backup catcher almost didn’t know how to react.

“It felt like I was running in the clouds,” he said. “It was unbelievable. I’ve never had that experience.”

The 35,154 fans who witnessed Nieves’ first big-league homer in a career that has included 1,005 minor-league games with 10 different teams and 71 games with three major-league clubs won’t soon forget this one. Nor will anyone in a Nationals uniform who mobbed Nieves as he crossed the plate following his game-winner.

“We all know America likes to pull for the underdog,” Nationals manager Manny Acta said. “It’s a feel-good story for everybody. And when you’re as humble as he is and has gone through whatever he has gone through in the minor leagues, every little moment here, especially when he does good, is very appreciated.”

Nieves’ opposite-field shot capped a back-and-forth ballgame that saw the Nationals take an early lead, allow the Cubs to come back and tie it, then retake the lead in the sixth, then re-allow the Cubs to tie it in the eighth before finally winning it in the bottom of the ninth.

With that, a Washington club that had lost 16 of 19 suddenly has won two in a row, something this team desperately needed.

“A lot,” said Austin Kearns, who was standing on first when Nieves hit his game-winner. “It’s been a while since we put together a couple good games in a row like that.”

It began with Nick Johnson’s two-run homer in the first into the right-field mezzanine, the first ball to reach the second deck in 10 games at Nationals Park.

It continued with another quality start from Odalis Perez — six innings of two-run ball — even though the veteran left-hander still couldn’t earn his first win of the season by night’s end.

It included Mike O’Connor walking Matt Murton with the bases loaded in the eighth, tying the game 3-3 and forcing fellow reliever Saul Rivera to bail him out by escaping the one-out jam without allowing any more runs to score.

“Forget about everything that happens after that,” Acta said. “Saul was huge.”

But no one shined brighter than Nieves, who was called up from Columbus a week ago when starting catcher Paul Lo Duca went down to a hand injury. He’s done little to warrant a return ticket to Class AAA with his play.

Considered a strong “catch-and-throw” guy who doesn’t hit much, Nieves has contributed plenty with his bat. He’s now batting .350 (7-for-20) while calling a good game behind the plate and flashing a strong arm.

Whether Nieves, 30, can parlay that into a permanent gig in Washington remains to be seen. But if nothing else, he’ll always have the memory of last night, when he reached out and belted Howry’s 0-2 pitch the other way and watched as it barely cleared the right-field fence.

Inside the Nationals bullpen, Joel Hanrahan retrieved the ball. Like Nieves, Hanrahan was a career minor-leaguer who finally got his chance, so he can appreciate what his batterymate has gone through. Hanrahan made sure to hang onto the ball and presented it to Nieves after the game.

“Being in the minor leagues that long, you have an appreciation for anybody that’s done it,” Hanrahan said. “That’s probably the biggest moment of his life besides getting married. That’s something you remember forever.”

The only thing that would have made the evening sweeter would have been if Yormarie Nieves had seen it in person. She actually had flown from Puerto Rico to Washington yesterday morning, but upon learning her husband wasn’t in the starting lineup decided to stay back at her hotel and watch on television.

“I just imagine her jumping in the hotel screaming,” Wil Nieves said. “The hotel management is probably going to the room thinking: What’s going on?”

Only the most memorable moment in her husband’s career.

SEEN AND HEARD AT NATIONALS PARK

More than four hours before yesterday’s game, Alfonso Soriano was going through a rigorous workout at the plate, on the bases and in left field. The Cubs’ $136 million man (and former Nats player) is on the disabled list with a strained calf muscle, but he appears only a week or so from returning.

Soriano’s injury couldn’t diminish his always boisterous spirits. After completing his workout, he chatted with several ex-teammates. As much as the Cubs miss their dynamic leadoff hitter, they haven’t missed a beat on the field. Since Soriano went on the DL, Chicago has gone 7-2.

Mark Zuckerman

OVERHEARD

“Where’d they find it? I haven’t been on base!”

Nick Johnson on a photo of himself sliding head first into a base that appears on a T-shirt the Nats are giving out Tuesday night

TONIGHT’S GAME

Cubs RHP Carlos Zambrano Record, ERA: 3-1, 2.67

Nationals LHP Matt Chico Record, ERA: 0-4, 6.04

Time: 7:10 p.m. TV: MASN2


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