- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Maybe it’s appropriate that Wil Nieves’ first major league home run landed him in the middle of a raucous scene that included a series of body blows from Austin Kearns. The Washington Nationals catcher knows a thing or two about fighting.

His mother, Dommys Delgado, is the executive director of the Commission of Professional Boxing of Puerto Rico. She has been in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s only female head of a boxing commission, and from her Nieves has learned as much about how to handle left hooks as left-handers.

Most of his lessons about fighting, however, came in 13 years spent mostly in the minor leagues. Sure, there were four major league call-ups in that span, but every one ended with the knockdown punch that he had seen so many boxers deliver in San Juan.

And every one of them increased the perception Nieves was just a “catch and throw guy,” unable to add anything else to a major league roster.

So when Nieves took the celebratory beating from Kearns and the rest of his teammates Friday after hitting a walk-off homer to beat the Cubs 5-3, it also was a sign that he’s punching back.

The eight games Nieves has played for the Nationals this season have been the best of the 30-year-old’s major league career. He is hitting .348 with a homer and four RBI — or seven less than his career total before this season — has hit in five consecutive games, thrown out two runners and drawn rave reviews from a pitching staff that has posted a 2.32 ERA in the 62 innings he has caught.

“For the kid that came to camp just hoping to stick as a backup, God has a mysterious way of working things out,” manager Manny Acta said. “Now he’s come over here, and he’s contributing.”

Nieves’ turnaround as a hitter began last Tuesday against John Smoltz and the Atlanta Braves. He hadn’t had a hit in his first seven at-bats since being called up to fill in for the injured Paul Lo Duca, and that “catch-and-throw guy” label was creeping up on him again.

That’s when Nieves realized he was working too hard to outrun it.

He called a sports psychologist friend in Puerto Rico, known to Nieves simply as Dr. Yeras, and explained his problems at the plate. Nieves is a career .287 hitter in the minor leagues, but in the major leagues he had gotten away from using his compact stroke to hit balls the other way. Instead, he was trying to hit home runs in an effort to prove he belonged in the majors.

“He asked me how I felt catching and how I felt hitting,” Nieves said. “Right there, I saw the difference. It’s fun when I was catching, and hitting, it’s a lot of stress. I wanted to do it so bad that it wasn’t happening. That’s what I’m doing now, just hitting and having fun.”

The 5-foot-11 Nieves has played only 71 major league games, and he walks around every day like he knows what each one means. His energy has made an impression on the Nationals’ pitchers, who say Nieves takes as much pride in their success as they do.

“You come up in a pressure situation, and you get a big out. You’re pumped, but the pitcher can’t really show any expression out there, because you don’t want to show anybody up,” reliever Joel Hanrahan said. “He kind of does it for us. It’s good to have some energy out of him.”

But now that Lo Duca has started a rehab assignment with Class A Potomac, Nieves’ latest major league stint could be coming to an end. Keeping him would mean the Nationals would have three catchers on their roster when they still will have to make room for left fielder Elijah Dukes and first baseman Dmitri Young upon their returns.

If Nieves is going to stay on the major league roster, he will have to prove he has shed the “catch-and-throw guy” label permanently.

“I was in that position, and once you get that rap, you aren’t going to get it off,” said bench coach Pat Corrales, himself a former catcher who saw his playing time limited over his nine-year career because of questions about his offense. “I told him, ‘All you’ve got to do is hit .250, and the way you catch and throw, you can make a lot of money up here.’ ”

Said general manager Jim Bowden: “I hate to send anybody down that’s performing at that level. That will be a difficult decision when we get there. But right now, he’s been a very important part of our winning.”

Even if Nieves heads back to the minor leagues, don’t count on him resigning himself to staying there.

He will keep punching, just like he learned from his mother.

“I’m just playing every day and taking every opportunity that they give me and doing my best,” Nieves said. “I learned in baseball that the only thing I can control is my attitude and the way I play. I don’t worry about stuff outside that. My career is in God’s hands.”

NEW SERIES

ATLANTA BRAVES at WASHINGTON NATIONALS

Where: Nationals Park

Today: 7:10 p.m., LHP Tom Glavine (0-1, 2.38) vs. RHP Tim Redding (3-2, 3.67), MASN.

Tomorrow: 4:35 p.m., RHP Jair Jurrjens (3-2, 3.45) vs. RHP Shawn Hill (0-0, 5.40), MASN.

Series breakdown: The Braves already make their third trip of the season to the District, having come here for the one-game season opener March 30, then a three-game series April 11-13 and now returning for a two-game set. This will mark Glavine’s first appearance since he strained a hamstring before recording an out a couple weeks ago against Washington, leading to the first stint on the disabled list in his 22-year career. Tomorrow’s rare late-afternoon game features Hill in his third start since opening the season on the DL with a sore forearm against Jurrjens, a talented young right-hander whom the Braves acquired from Detroit last winter in the Edgar Renteria trade.

- Mark Zuckerman

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