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Nieves the hero against Cubs

Nieves the hero against Cubs

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WASHINGTON -- Catcher Wil Nieves has been in professional baseball for 13 years, but has played in only 70 big league games. Lack of hitting is the reason for his being limited to a cup of coffee in the big show. Entering the 2008 season, Nieves had a .161 batting average in the Majors.

However, nobody questions what he does behind the plate. Nieves is an excellent catch-and-throw backstop, and he has proven it over and over since joining the Nationals on April 16. But Nieves' bat was still an issue. He was hitless in his first seven at-bats. Then, last week, he spoke to a friend in Puerto Rico. The friend asked Nieves two simple questions:

How did Nieves feel about catching?

"I feel happy," Nieves said.

How do you feel about hitting?

Nieves didn't hesitate with the answer. "I feel a lot of stress," he said.

The friend gave Nieves a simple solution to his problem with the bat. Try to have fun with the bat just like he does behind the plate.

The friend's advice appears to be working. Since that talk, Nieves is 7-for-12 in his past four games and one of those hits turned out to be the biggest of his big league career. His two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning on Friday night gave the Nationals a 5-3 win over the Cubs at Nationals Park.

With Austin Kearns on first base and reliever Bob Howry on the mound, Nieves took an 0-2 pitch and hit the ball over the right-field wall for his first Major League home run. It was arguably the most exciting hit since Ryan Zimmerman's walk-off home run on Opening Day.

There was Nieves pumping his fist as he was circling the bases. When he arrived at home plate, there were his teammates giving him hard/playful punches. Nieves said Willie Harris gave him the hardest punches. Nieves was then rewarded with a shaving cream pie in the face.

"It feels great," Nieves said. "That was my first home run in the big leagues. And being a walk-off and being in the situation that we were in ... it was huge. It was a great feeling.

"The last week I've been trying to relax at the plate. I was trying to do too much. That's why I haven't been hitting in the big leagues. Five days ago, I said, 'You know what, let's have fun.' When I catch, I have fun. That's what I'm doing now when I'm hitting, and it's working. I feel more relaxed now and just staying with my game -- that is hitting the ball the other way."

Even though Nieves is doing well behind the plate -- and at it -- there is no guarantee he will be with the team when catcher Paul Lo Duca is activated from the disabled list next week.

The Nationals already have a backup catcher in Johnny Estrada, who is a better hitter but doesn't match Nieves when it comes to calling a game.

"He is obviously impressing a lot of people, but it will be a push unless we decide to carry three catchers or something," manager Manny Acta said about Nieves. "Now we know what we have. That's why we kept him through Spring Training. We didn't put him on our club the first week of the season because he is out of options."

Nieves said he is not worried about what could happen to him in the next few days. He just wants to enjoy his time in the big leagues.

"I'm not even thinking about that," said Nieves. "I'm taking every opportunity that they give me. I'm going to do my best. I learned in baseball that the only thing I can control is my attitude and the way I play baseball. I don't worry about stuff outside of that. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen. My career is in God's hands. Whatever He wants, I'm going to be there."

The Nationals got off to a good start against Cubs right-hander Ryan Dempster in the first inning, when Nick Johnson hit a two-run homer over the right-field fence.

But Chicago ended up tying the score. Ryan Theriot doubled into the left-field corner off starter Odalis Perez to drive in Reed Johnson in the third inning, and Johnson scored his second run of the game on an Aramis Ramirez groundout in the fifth.

Washington then re-took the lead in the bottom of the sixth inning, when Lastings Milledge hit a Dempster pitch and singled to right field to drive in Cristian Guzman.

Perez pitched well, giving up two runs over six innings, but he ended up with his third no-decision, as the bullpen was unable to protect the lead. With the bases loaded in the eighth, left-hander Mike O'Connor walked pinch-hitter Matt Murton to force home Ramirez and tie the score at 3.

But it was an unlikely hero who saved the day. Nieves showed that he could hit when it counted.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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