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Nationals' Nieves, Maldonado look to catch a break

By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 26, 2010; D01

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Washington Nationals played 20 games in 20 days, and after that even the usual refuge of a day off presented complications.

After they beat the Baltimore Orioles on Sunday, the Nationals boarded a plane. They spent five hours waiting on the tarmac while workers tried to fix a mechanical problem. After midnight, they deplaned and went home. They came back Monday and waited another two hours on the runway before taking off. Once they arrived in San Francisco, a rainstorm threatened to postpone the first game of a 10-day, West Coast trip.

Once they can finally resume baseball, their most pressing issue will come behind the plate. With Iván Rodríguez on the disabled list, the Nationals for the next two weeks will replace a certain Hall of Famer with a pair of catchers who have spent their careers in the game's shadows. New starter Wil Nieves has been a backup nearly all of his major league career, and new backup Carlos Maldonado has not even really had one.

Nieves has proved to be a reliable backup since arriving in 2008, and he views his chance to start as a means to prove he can be something more.

"I know I can play every day," Nieves said. "But I know what's my role, too. I learned how to come from the bench. That's a dream for everybody, just to be able to catch every day and play every day in the big leagues. I definitely, in my mind, feel that I can do it. This is a big opportunity for me to show I can do it, or that if anything happens to their starter, they can count on me to fill in until they come back."

Replacing Rodríguez's offensive output -- he's hitting .325, best among National League catchers -- will be Nieves's primary challenge. Nieves, a career .233 hitter, is batting .224 this season with one home run. Nieves believes getting into a rhythm will help his hitting.

When Nieves played on a regular basis in the minor leagues, he remembers, he felt far more comfortable and productive as a hitter. Upon arriving with the Nationals in 2008, Nieves thought it would be impossible to hit well with irregular playing time. He quickly shed that mentality. He told himself, "I need to do it, or I'm not going to be here."

"You never forget how to catch," Nieves said. "You don't need timing or nothing to do it. Hitting, you do. When you get to play a little bit more, your timing gets better and you can help the team. Hitting is tough when you play every day. Imagine when you play once every two weeks. But I learned it."

For a short time, anyway, Nieves will have his own backup. Maldonado has played in 1,106 professional baseball games, and 1,085 of them have come in the minor leagues. He made his major league debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates in September 2006, more than 11 years after he signed as a free agent out of Venezuela. He got another cup of coffee the next September, again with the Pirates.

The rest of his career has been sunflower-seed shells on the floor of a bus. On Tuesday, Maldonado walked into the Nationals' clubhouse inside AT&T Park and found his own locker and a big league jersey waiting for him. Maldonado's job for the next two weeks, backup catcher, will seem glamorous only to him.

His long tenure in the minors have included a few odd moments. Last year, he pitched in an extra-inning emergency for Class AAA Pawtucket, a Red Sox affiliate. The first batter he faced walked. The second batter hit a game-ending home run.

His stint with the Nationals may include another memory. Either Nieves or Maldonado will catch Stephen Strasburg if the phenom makes his first start in their first home series of June. Maldonado caught Strasburg twice in Class AAA Syracuse, and in those starts Strasburg did not surrender an earned run while rarely shaking off Maldonado. Nieves caught Strasburg's first two spring training starts, after which Strasburg raved about throwing to Nieves.

Nieves still understands his place on the Nationals. "I know I'm a backup," he said. For the near future, at least, he can look forward to that changing.

"Some guys only have one opportunity," Nieves said. "And when that opportunity comes, you've got to take advantage of it."

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