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Ex-Met Kirk Nieuwenhuis' history with Wally Backman led him to Ducks

Ducks outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis bats in a game

Ducks outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis bats in a game against the Long Island Black Sox on Monday at Bethpage Ballpark. Credit: George A. Faella

And then, there were two. After pitcher Jon Niese’s contract was purchased by the Seattle Mariners organization this week, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Matt den Dekker remained as the lone former Mets on the Ducks' roster when the season began Friday night in York, Pennsylvania.

It was a solid beginning for both. Nieuwenhuis hit third and went 1-for-5 with a walk, a run and an RBI in the Ducks' 12-3 win over the York Revolution in Wally Backman’s first game as Ducks manager. Den Dekker batted fifth and went 2-for-5 with a two-run home run.  

Nieuwenhuis was the first of the three former Met acquisitions that the Ducks made this offseason, signing on March 19. The 31-year old played parts of four seasons with the Mets from 2012-2015.

As he bounced between Queens and the minor leagues during those years, Nieuwenhuis was tutored by Backman, who then was a manager in the Mets' system. That relationship was a large reason why Nieuwenhuis chose Long Island to begin his quest back to the bigs.

“He wants to win and knows the game in and out,”  Nieuwenhuis said of Backman. “He’s one of the best managers I’ve ever played for. He’s very positive and, as fiery as he is on the field, he’s pretty easy going off the field. He’s a lot of fun to be around. He makes things fun and keeps things fun, but no one wants to win more than he does.”

Nieuwenhuis last played in the majors in 2017, when he suited up 16 times for the Brewers. He played 125 games in Milwaukee in 2016 and hit .209 with 13 home runs and 44 RBIs. Last season, he played 80 games and hit .214 for the Mariners' Triple-A affiliate before being released in early August.

Which brings Nieuwenhuis to the Ducks, a familiar landing spot for those who think they have more to offer major-league teams. His old teammate Niese only needed one spring training start against the Long Island Black Sox, a local men’s club team, to convince the Mariners to give him a shot in Triple-A. Nieuwenhuis is hoping that a solid first few weeks will land him in a similar position.

“I feel healthy and ready to go,” Nieuwenhuis said. “I just want to work on my approach at the plate and my swing.”

Backman, for one, foresees a quick stay in the independent ranks for his current rightfielder.

“He’s a force and another guy that might not last a long time,” Backman said. “He’s a quality individual and a professional.”

Nieuwenhuis’ best stretch with the Mets came after they claimed him off waivers from the Angels in June 2015. He hit .279 with four home runs and 11 RBIs in 37 games, including becoming the first Met to hit three home runs in a single game at home. Niewenhuis played in four games during the Mets' 2015 postseason run, including two World Series at-bats. He went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in that stretch, but he still remembers 2015 as the highlight of his Mets tenure.

“That whole playoff run was unbelievable,” he said.

Attendance milestone expected

The Ducks will welcome their first fans of 2019 on Friday night when they open their home schedule against York, but that number will pale in comparison to what may come later in the year. The Ducks project they will welcome their eighth million fan into Bethpage Ballpark in either late August or early September.

“That will be a very special moment for our organization,” said Ducks president and general manager Michael Pfaff at a Ducks media day news conference last Monday.  “We’ll become the first team in Atlantic League history to do so. We’ve led the league in attendance 14 times and have over 680 sellouts in our history, so becoming the first team to reach eight-million fans is a great accomplishment in our 20th year.”

High Point wins inaugural game

The High Point Rockers, the Atlantic League’s newest team, beat Lancaster 7-1 on Friday to earn their first win in franchise history. Former Duck Ashur Tolliver earned the win in relief.

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