PHOENIX — Wil Nieves could not get on the field in June, going 25 days between starts in one stretch.
Things have been a little different recently, with Nieves making his fourth straight start Friday while the Diamondbacks remained cautious with Miguel Montero’s sore lower back.
Nieves, the D-backs’ backup catcher, has handled the ins and outs this season with the professionalism of a veteran, and when he has been in the lineup, he has produced on both sides of the ball.
It is not an easy balancing act. Nieves just makes it look so.
“It’s a tough role, because Miggy is a guy who plays a lot,” said Eric Chavez, who knows a little about the art of being a situational player. “But every time Wil has been in there, he has been very productive. He’s been outstanding behind the plate, which as a backup, really, that is all you want. His offense, every time he’s played, has been real productive for us and helped us win games.
“It’s not easy to do, but it’s a testament to Wil and staying positive when he is not playing and understanding his role and taking advantage of when he gets in there.”
Nieves had six hits in 14 at-bats in the final three games of the D-backs’ series with the Cubs, raising his batting average to .369 in 84 at-bats. He has six doubles and 13 RBIs, and his three-hit game Wednesday was his third of the season. He also had a four-hit game when he caught all 15 innings against the Mets on July 4. His RBI-per-at-bat ratio is second only to Paul Goldschmidt’s on the team.
“I love to play,” said Nieves, 35. “When I’m in the lineup, I like to tell everybody I’m like a little kid. I’m excited. If I play a little bit more, it is going to be good for me, so I can contribute with the bat, and good for Miggy, so he can just rest.”
With the enthusiasm of a kid comes the perspective of a veteran. For Nieves, it is about proper preparation. Catching bullpens keeps his defense in tune, and bullpen coach Glenn Sherlock helps Nieves stay sharp with early work on blocking drills and throwing to the bases. Moreover, every swing in batting practice has a purpose.
“Now that I am getting older, I’ve learned how to not put that much pressure on myself. Now I know how to practice well so it can show up in the game. Before, I used to take batting practice and see how far I could hit it. Now, I try to keep my head on the ball. If I don’t do it in B.P. or in the cages, I’m not going to be able to do it in the game, even if I want to,” Nieves said.
“Hitting is timing. What I try to do in the cages and in batting practice is to get good habits, because once you go in the game, if you think about mechanics, it is going to be too much in your head. When I am hitting, it is just muscle memory. Whatever I practice, if I practice right, is going to show up the game.”
Nieves, who signed with the Padres in 1996, got his most regular time with the Nationals from 2008-10, when he averaged about 65 games a season. He has had a resurgence the last two seasons. He hit .298 with the Rockies last season, then .306 with the D-backs when he was claimed off waivers after Henry Blanco suffered a season-ending thumb injury. Nieves and Rod Barajas were the top contenders for the backup spot this spring, and Nieves’ arm made the D-backs’ difficult decision a little easier.
“I played every day in the minors, so it was hard for me to come to the big leagues and right away they put the stamp of being a backup. So it was hard. I tried to prove to everybody that I could catch every day,” Nieves said.
“I still know I can do it, but I accept my role now. I know I can do that while Miggy gets healthy.”