By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 26, 2008
Wil Nieves has spent 12 years in professional baseball, never a full season in the major leagues. The 3,483 at-bats he has accumulated in the minors have been seen by crowds numbering perhaps 5,000 a night. Maybe, somewhere, among the throng of 35,154 last night at Nationals Park, there is a soul who remembers one of them.
Now, Nieves has a moment that those who remained will remember, one that makes those anonymous appearances worth all of it. With the Washington Nationals in a grinder of a tie game against the Chicago Cubs, Nieves got a fastball, up and perhaps slightly off the plate, from Cubs reliever Bobby Howry. Tie game, runner on first, bottom of the ninth.
"I never expected that," he said. His swing produced a drive to right, the opposite field, a two-run homer that gave the Nationals a 5-3 victory and sent a feeling through the dugout and the clubhouse that had been absent since the team opened the season with three straight wins. Nieves, anonymous no more, rounded the bases swiftly and was greeted by a pack of teammates at the plate, celebrating back-to-back wins for the first time in more than three weeks.
"It felt like I was running on the clouds," he said. "It was unbelievable. I've never had that experience."
Nieves has a reputation as a fine defensive catcher, and indeed Manager Manny Acta inserted him into the game in the seventh inning with the Nationals holding a tenuous 3-2 lead. In that time, Nieves threw out one would-be base stealer, then coaxed a beleaguered bullpen through the final two innings, even as the Cubs rallied to tie the game on a bases-loaded walk issued by lefty Mike O'Connor.
In those dozen minor league seasons, Nieves has 51 homers. "I'm not a home run hitter," he said, "and I know that." So after Austin Kearns led off the ninth with a hard single up the middle off Howry and Willie Harris struck out, Nieves would have been forgiven if he, too, had failed to come through.
By that point, the Nationals had seemingly frittered away their best chance to win. Nick Johnson gave them a 2-0 lead in the first with his third homer of the year, temporarily quelling an 0-for-16 skid. After left-hander Odalis Pérez allowed just two runs in his six solid innings, the Nationals went ahead on Lastings Milledge's two-out, opposite-field single in the sixth.
So Acta turned to his bullpen, which has been hampered by the absence of closer Chad Cordero, changing the roles of basically all the relievers. Acta called on right-hander Luis Ayala, who got through the seventh without incident. But in the eighth, he allowed singles to the first two hitters, then a sacrifice bunt to move them to second and third. An intentional walk loaded the bases, and Acta had to make his move.
By this point, he was trying to stay away from Saúl Rivera -- who, like Ayala, came into the evening tied for the National League lead with 13 appearances. Cubs Manager Lou Piniella had sent in left-handed hitting Daryle Ward, a low-ball hitter with serious power, as a pinch hitter. Ayala is a sinker-baller. Even knowing that Piniella would likely substitute a right-handed hitter if Acta came with O'Connor, his only lefty, he made the move. Piniella countered with Matt Murton.
"I'd rather see O'Connor against Murton," Acta said, "than Ayala against Ward."
Yet the matchup, as Acta said, "didn't work out." O'Connor, just two days removed from being a starter in the minors, walked Murton on five pitches, bringing in the run that made it 3-3. Acta had to turn to the over-worked Rivera anyway. The result, with the bases loaded and one out: strikeout, groundout, survival.
"Forget about everything that happens after that," Acta said. "Saúl was huge."
But everything that happened afterward was the fun part, the part that had the Nationals clubhouse emanating good vibes for the first time in weeks. There are, clearly, Nationals who are simply sick of losing, and the past two nights have brought a measure of relief.
"This is what it's about," Johnson said. "It's about winning. If you don't have that fire in the belly, don't come. That's what you play for. You don't play to win 81 games and then take it to the house."
Nieves clearly doesn't play for that. He is with the Nationals only because starting catcher Paul Lo Duca is on the disabled list with a bruised hand. Though he has appeared with San Diego and the New York Yankees, he has never played in more than 28 major league games in a season. He knows when Lo Duca comes back, he could return to Class AAA Columbus, game-ending homer or not.
"I learned in baseball that the only thing I can control is my attitude and the way I play baseball," Nieves said. "I don't worry about stuff outside that. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen."
Last night, what happened was one extraordinary moment in a life of obscurity. Nieves's wife, Yormari, arrived from Puerto Rico just yesterday, and would be waiting at his hotel. Awaiting at home plate, however, were his teammates, ready to deliver the punches to his ribs that mark such an occasion, an occasion unlike any he had ever experienced.