Called up to the big leagues for the first time on the second day of the 2012 season, Kirk Nieuwenhuis made the most of his opportunity with the New York Mets.
An early contender for National League Rookie of the Year honors, the slick-fielding 51s outfielder led all rookies in batting (.325) and hits (26) in April and was still hitting .300 with six home runs in June — by which time Mets fans had dubbed him “Captain Kirk.”
Nieuwenhuis lost his groove at the plate when the injured players he’d replaced returned to action and his playing time was reduced.
“Sitting the bench, that was tough. I’d never done that before,” he said. “Doing the pinch-hit thing, that was something I wasn’t used to. But it’s part of the game.
“I learned a lot from that, and last year and this year. You have to keep sharp.”
Nieuwenhuis was optioned back to Triple-A Buffalo on July 30, where he tore his plantar fascia in his second game and missed the rest of the season.
He hasn’t earned consistent playing time with the Mets since, bouncing back and forth between New York and Las Vegas last year and this season.
The 6-foot-3-inch, 225-pound left-handed hitter was called up by the Mets on April 15 to fill in for center fielder Juan Lagares. He went 3-for-5 with a homer and three RBIs in a victory over the Diamondbacks in his season debut and also drew a walk-off walk in a win over the Cardinals, but finished 1-for-13 before getting sent back to Las Vegas on May 2, when Lagares rejoined the Mets.
“He won two games for us, basically,” New York manager Terry Collins said.
Nieuwenhuis has struggled since returning to the Pacific Coast League-leading 51s (27-11), batting .129 (4-for-31) in his first seven games back after starting the season here by hitting .310 with two homers and eight RBIs in 10 games.
“It’s just a matter of Newie playing a little bit more to get his swing right because he’s proven he can hit in the big leagues,” Las Vegas manager Wally Backman said. “The only time he’s really been given a chance to play every day, he had some success doing it.
“I know he’s going to get better. I have no concerns with him at all.”
Nieuwenhuis — who homered in four straight games last season for the 51s and finished with 14 in 74 games — was scratched from Monday’s 9-4 win over Tacoma at Cashman Field because of a stiff neck.
“I slept on my neck wrong,” he said. “I can’t even look at the pitcher.”
If the gritty Nieuwenhuis said he can’t play, Backman said that means he really can’t play.
“One special thing about Newie is he’s a serious grinder. He plays when he’s hurt,” Backman said. “You don’t find many guys that play hurt anymore. For him to take himself out of the lineup for something, you know he’s hurt.”
In fact, Backman said one of the reasons Nieuwenhuis began to slide during his rookie year was because he was injured.
“He was trying to play through it,” he said.
There’s no doubt Nieuwenhuis has a football mentality. He was an all-state running back in Colorado who helped lead his high school, Denver Christian, to the state title.
“We won the state championship my junior year and then our whole offensive line graduated, and I got a couple concussions my senior year,” he said.
Nieuwenhuis received scholarship offers for football from Colorado State and Air Force, among others, but declined them because he didn’t want to sit out his freshman year as a redshirt.
He also spurned scholarship offers for baseball from Bradley and Dallas Baptist because both Division I schools only wanted him to pitch. He wanted to hit, so he opted to play for Azusa Pacific, then a small school in California, which has since moved up to Division II.
“I chose APU because they let me start right away and hit and pitch,” he said.
The 26-year-old also is an outstanding outfielder.
“Newie can play all three outfield positions better than average. He’s an above average defender,” Backman said. “He runs better than average and he’s a left-handed hitter with power. There’s places for guys like that.”
Nieuwenhuis, who hit .333 (5-for-15) last season as a pinch-hitter for the Mets, is ready for any role.
“My rookie year I didn’t really know how to do that,” he said. “That’s something I’ve learned along the way, how to try to prepare for that.”
■ NOTES — Allan Dykstra hit a three-run homer in the 51s’ five-run second. … Matt den Dekker also homered, in the second. … Las Vegas right-hander Jacob deGrom (4-0, 2.58 ERA) was scratched from his scheduled start and is expected to be called up by the Mets, along with right-hander Rafael Montero (4-1, 3.67), who is slated to start for New York on Wednesday against the Yankees at Citi Field.
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at email@example.com or 702-383-0354. Follow him on Twitter @tdewey33.