Kirk Nieuwenhuis cements place in Mets history with homer

Kirk Nieuwenhuis not only led the Mets to victory with his eighth-inning homer, but he also won a belt for his troubles. Alex Brandon/AP

WASHINGTON -- Kirk Nieuwenhuis had been 3-for-38 on the season when he was designated for assignment by the New York Mets on May 19. That began a sequence in which he was traded to the Los Angeles Angels for cash, claimed back off waivers, sent through waivers again and then demoted to Triple-A Las Vegas.

“It was a tough run there pinch-hitting at the beginning of the season,” Nieuwenhuis said.

On Tuesday, Nieuwenhuis played a central role in perhaps the Mets’ most important win since 2006. His tiebreaking, pinch-hit homer in the eighth against Jonathan Papelbon lifted the Mets to an 8-7 win against the Washington Nationals.

The Amazin’s, who overcame a six-run deficit in the seventh, opened a six-game division lead over Washington.

“Papelbon has got a great splitty. I didn’t really want to stick around for that,” Nieuwenhuis said. “Thankfully I got my pitch early. I was just kind of looking for something in -- middle or middle in. His ball can run sometimes quite a bit off the plate. I got my pitch and thankfully put a good swing on it.”

As for his contribution amid his struggles this season, Nieuwenhuis added: “I’m still kind of processing it right now. It’s just been a lot of fun. This is such a good team to be on. I came up with a lot of these guys. This run is a lot fun.”

Said manager Terry Collins: “When I first came to this organization as the field coordinator, I fell in love with the way he plays. Everybody thought this guy was going to be a great player. He’s had a lot of injuries to different parts of his body, his shoulders especially. He had to change his swing. Tonight, to be a part of this, I’m real happy for him.”

After each win, the Mets present a WWE-style belt to the most important contributor to the victory. Nieuwenhuis was the recipient Tuesday. It sounded like a football locker room during the presentation, which might be appropriate given Nieuwenhuis is a former college football recruit.

“We try to create a fun atmosphere,” Collins said. “And Michael Cuddyer came up with the belt idea. And nobody moves. They come in and they sit in their chairs, waiting for the last guy to walk in to watch the award [ceremony]. It’s fun. It’s fun for them. Yeah, we’re adults literally playing a little boy’s game and trying to have some fun just like they do.”

Said Nieuwenhuis: “This is such a fun team to be on. This stretch run is going to be a lot of fun.”