Mets have prize in young Nieuwenhuis

During his days at Denver Christian High School, Kirk Nieuwenhuis was a pretty good pitcher on the school’s baseball team. But Nieuwenhuis’ stardom came on the football field, where he ran for 268 yards and earned MVP honors in the Class 2A title game his junior year.

He was recruited by a host of major colleges, including the University of Colorado, where he made his visit for the Nebraska game, and his life plan suffered a severe jolt.

“There was a guy standing near me and I’m thinking, ‘Man he is big,’” Nieuwenhuis said. “Five minutes later, he is kicking a field goal. I was thinking, ‘That guy is a kicker and he’s that big? What am I getting myself into?’”

So while Colorado kicker Mason Crosby was going on to an NFL career with the Green Bay Packers, Nieuwenhuis turned his attention to baseball, a career decision that has worked out well.

From Denver Christian High School, he matriculated to Azusa Pacific University, where the Christian affiliation of the school was as important a factor in Nieuwenhuis’ decision as the athletic opportunity.

Nieuwenhuis, after all, realizes a baseball career will eventually end, but he is a Christian for life. And while most of the schools that had interest in him for baseball wanted him as a pitcher — he consistently hit 90 miles per hour in high school — Azusa Pacific was the one school that offered him the chance to both pitch and play in the field, and see what worked out the best.

By his junior year, center field had become his home. The funny aspect is that since his high school days, Nieuwenhuis has physically matured. He stands 6-foot-3 and is a solid 225 pounds, making scouts wonder if he might be so big that he would be better served by moving to a corner outfield spot.

“I am just enjoying the opportunity I am getting,” was Nieuwenhuis answer to the position quandary.

And his teammates are enjoying watching how he has taken advantage of an unexpected opportunity.

The Mets third-round draft choice in the 2008 draft, Nieuwenhuis was headed back to Triple-A Buffalo this year, after being limited to 53 games a year ago because of a left shoulder separation. Baseball America had ranked him the seventh best prospect in the Mets system.

He is considered a key ingredient to the long-term success of the Mets, who have focused on replenishing its farm system given the financial chaos created by the impact of the Madoff case on the Mets’ ownership. Thursday afternoon against Florida, it should be noted that the Mets put out a starting lineup that was completely homegrown.

And it was Nieuwenhuis who hit lead off and played center field, having been called up to the big leagues just one game into the season.

Mets center fielder Andres Torres strained his left calf on Opening Day, and Nieuwenhuis was called up to platoon with Scott Hairston and fill the void until Torres returned to the active roster.

And the past three weeks have allowed Nieuwenhuis to force the Mets to reconsider the idea that he would be sent back to Buffalo when Torres is activated from the disabled list, which is expected to happen when the Mets open a series in Houston on Monday.

Initially, the Mets think Nieuwenhuis can easily move to left field, where he again could share time with Hairston, filling in for Jason Bay, who went on the disabled list Tuesday with a non-displaced rib fracture. A left-handed hitter, Nieuwenhuis gets the bulk of the at-bats in the platoon.

And when Bay returns?

“We’ll see how things work out,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “He’s made a big impression not only with what he has done (statistically) but with his approach to the game and the way he fits into the clubhouse.”

There has been speculation that he could push Torres into a fourth outfielder role.

Nieuwenhuis has become the primary leadoff hitter, but he would seem to fit better lower in the lineup. While he carried a .300 average into Sunday’s series finale at Colorado, he had more strike outs (23) than hits (21), including 10 times the past five games. Scouting reports are starting to be compiled, which means Nieuwenhuis is going to have to make some adjustments.

Given his ability to adapt in the past, however, that doesn’t figure to be a problem.

And he has shown the offensive ability to fit comfortably down in the lineup. He did hit 51 home runs in his three full seasons of play in the minor leagues. And he did become the first left-handed hitter on the Mets roster to hit an opposite-field home run at Citi Park when he connected off San Francisco left-hander Barry Zito on April 20.

“They did change the dimensions this year,” he said. "I’m not sure it would have gone out before this year."

One thing that is certain, however, is that the Mets are sure they have a keeper in Nieuwenhuis.