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Nieuwenhuis reaches for the big leagues on Long Island

BRIDGEWATER, N.J. – Ducks manager Wally Backman tips his hat to outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis for being a true professional throughout his career.

There are few higher levels of praise Backman can offer to his players. He firmly believes Nieuwenhuis can make a return to the big leagues and if his career plays out in the Atlantic League, he can definitely see him getting an invite to spring training.

“His professionalism is one of the main reasons why I brought him here,” Backman said. “Not only is he a good player but he’s a good teammate. For him to come here and see the people who are actually in this league probably influenced [his decision.] He came here for a purpose and that is to get back [to the league.] Kirk believes he can still play and I believe he still has a chance. He’s shown the desire to want to play again. He plays as hard here as he did in the MLB. I would like to see him get picked up by the end of the season.”

Backman, who coached Nieuwenhuis when he was in Triple-A Buffalo, knows the purpose of this league is to give players another shot at affiliated ball, which is why he says he loves losing players – to major league organizations that is.

After spending the 2018 season with the Tacoma Rainiers, the Triple-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, the former New York Mets outfielder found himself without an invitation to a spring training camp roster. When he found out Backman would be at the helm of the Ducks, Nieuwenhuis was hooked on the opportunity to play for his former manager.

“I knew [Backman] well and once he made the move [to Long Island] this offseason he called me again and we talked and it seemed like a good fit. I still wanted to play and I didn’t have any offers for spring training so it made it a pretty easy decision,” Nieuwenhuis said. “Obviously you want to get to affiliated ball but sometimes this is the best route. I’m having fun with it and hopefully we can get a few more wins here and win the first half.”

Through 50 games in his first season in the Atlantic League, Nieuwenhuis has made a name for himself boasting a .259 batting average, a .302 on base percentage, 29 RBI and eight home runs which will hopefully get his name on a team radars to sign him.

Of the 34 players to have a contract purchased this season 10 of them were on the Ducks, which is second to only the Sugar Land Skeeters who have 13.

“It’s tougher than a lot of people think this Atlantic League,” said Backman on the competitiveness of the league. “I look at the team I had to start the season and I could’ve taken that whole team to Triple-A and competed well. What I think we’ve done here is lengthen a lot of guys’ opportunities. I talk to different scouts all the time and they’re always asking about players. It’s up to the scout to get the information.”

When he arrived on Long Island, which he says is flooded with Mets fans, Nieuwenhuis was accompanied by former Mets teammates Jon Niese and Matt den Dekker which made his transition smoother.

Although Niese’s contract was purchased by the Seattle Mariners during spring training and den Dekker announced his retirement in early June, he was grateful for the chance to reconnect.

“You spend six months out of the year with these guys and become family. Those friendships you create over the course of a season don’t go away,” Nieuwenhuis said. “You get back together or call somebody up and pick up right where you left off. I played with [den Dekker] a decent amount in the minor leagues and played with Niese a pretty good amount in the big leagues. I didn’t keep in touch with them a ton over the years but once we came here and we’re on the same team you just pick up where you left off. It was fun [to see those guys again.]”

Niese, den Dekker and Nieuwenhuis played together with the Mets from 2013-15.

Nieuwenhuis bounced around between the majors and affiliated ball from May 2015 onward until the Mets brought him back for the remainder of the season where they made an improbable run to the World Series, which he says made it all worth it.

His most vivid moment: Game 3 of the NLDS when the PA announcer introduced Chase Utley and irate Citi Field erupted in boos after a controversial slide into second base in game 2 which broke Rubén Tejada’s leg.

“I’ve never heard a stadium that loud before,” Nieuwenhuis said. “I was getting chills because when they announced [Utley,] I was standing right next to[Tejada] and he came out on crutches.”

Given all that Nieuwenhuis has experienced throughout his career, his goal remains to get back to the big leagues again.

“Everyone’s goal here is to get back into affiliated ball. The best way to handle pretty much anything in baseball is to take it one day at a time,” Nieuwenhuis said. “One pitch at a time; one game at a time. I think that’s the best way to approach it and to approach many things in life.”

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Dylan is a sophomore journalism major at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey and covers the Somerset Patriots and Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. He is also the Sports Editor of Rider's student newspaper, The Rider News.
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