Kirk Nieuwenhuis is no stranger to the leadoff spot. He batted in the No. 1 slot 78 times in 94 games with Double-A Binghamton as recently as 2010, before a promotion to Buffalo.
With Andres Torres on the DL and Ruben Tejada given the day off, Nieuwenhuis found himself batting first for the first time as a major leaguer on Wednesday.
New York Mets
He had a career-high three hits and reached base four times in five plate appearances to lift his average to .375 in 11 games in the majors. Nieuwenhuis doubled twice and scored three times in the 14-6 loss to the Braves. He also stole his first base.
“I’ve done it before,” Nieuwenhuis said about leading off. “It’s still hitting. It’s not really too big of an adjustment for me. You’re just trying to get on base for the big boys.”
With Tejada’s on-base percentage having slipped to .326 after recording only one hit and no walks in 12 plate appearances over his final three starts of the trip, perhaps it makes sense to give Nieuwenhuis a shot at remaining in the leadoff spot.
Will Terry Collins do so?
“Umm, there’s a shot,” Collins said. “He did a nice job there. We just have to see.”
Of course, Collins was offering no guarantee Nieuwenhuis would even be in Friday’s lineup against the San Francisco Giants at Citi Field, although the manager seemed to indicate it made sense.
Originally, Collins said the righty-hitting Scott Hairston and Nieuwenhuis were in a strict platoon. But Nieuwenhuis (and Hairston too) started Sunday in Philadelphia against southpaw Cole Hamels.
Collins said he had not yet studied the data, but noted Barry Zito -- who is due to start Friday for the Giants -- typically has not handled lefty hitters as well as other southpaws do. In two starts this year, lefty batters are only 1-for-12 against Zito. But last season lefties hit .294 against Zito, versus .248 for righties.
Hairston is a .259 hitter with one homer and six walks in 33 career plate appearances against Zito.
On the other hand, Nieuwenhuis is 0-for-6 with four strikeouts against lefties as a major leaguer. During parts of three seasons at Triple-A Buffalo, he hit .211 against lefties and .295 against righties.
“I know that Zito started off pretty good, but lefties have hit him pretty good in the past,” Collins said. “So I’ll take a look at that.”
Of course, the question often is uttered: What happens to Nieuwenhuis when Torres returns?
Many times when things are going well, rehabbing players are slowed down as to not return as quickly and disrupt things. If Nieuwenhuis is performing at a high level, it is hard to envision he is dislodged from the major league roster and returned to Buffalo.
One thing Collins wants to make sure is that Nieuwenhuis gets enough at-bats to justify being at the major league level. So that means either handling center field on a semi-regular basis, with Torres as the fourth outfielder, or Nieuwenhuis cutting into Jason Bay’s playing time too.
That should resolve itself, though, since Torres appears a couple of weeks away at least. By then, Nieuwenhuis will have a longer major league body of work.
Torres is not due to start testing his left calf by sprinting until the middle of next week. The organization is committed to playing the ex-Giant in minor league rehab games before being activated.
As for his early success, Nieuwenhuis was downplaying it.
“It’s been, what, a week and a half or two weeks?” Nieuwenhuis asked. “It’s pretty early. You’ve got to put it all in perspective and keep your head down.”
Said Collins: “When you’re a rookie in the big leagues, one of the things you have to gain is some confidence. I think with every game, Kirk’s believing that he belongs here and can play here. And I think today he had some very, very good at-bats.”