Monday’s Bunts and Boots–Church, Nieves, and Bjarkman

With all of the negative attention being monopolized by the aging Carlos Delgado and the enigmatic Aaron Heilman, it’s been easy to overlook the debut of new Mets right fielder Ryan Church. On Sunday, Church made a spectacular running catch in right-center field, as he outran Carlos Beltran in ending what could have been a huge comeback rally for the Braves. It was the kind of play that could have put Church with the likes of Endy Chavez, Tommie Agee, and Ron Swoboda in Mets lore–if only it had happened during a playoff or World Series game.

That play by Church should serve as the headline maker in what it has been a terrific first month in New York for the ex-National. His defensive play–from his range to his throwing arm–has been first rate, essentially giving the Mets a second center fielder in their outfield. And his offensive firepower has been a godsend for a team that has received virtually no production from Delgado and absolutely nothing from Moises Alou, whose absence may grow longer now that he appears to have suffered a fractured bone in his ankle.

If Church had endured a poor start, Mets fans would have booed him with the same passion they’ve reserved for Delgado, largely because of their dissatisfaction with the Lastings Milledge trade. Milledge still has the higher upside, but right now, there’s no question that Church is the better, more complete, and more polished player. And given the struggles of the Mets this April, that should count for something…

What a difference a year makes. Last year, Wil Nieves played so incompetently as the Yankees’ backup catcher that I regarded him as arguably the worst major league player I’d seen in 30 years. (Other candidates include Mike Fischlin, Ron Hodges, Happy Jack Voigt, and Scott Bailes.) Nieves couldn’t do anything; he couldn’t hit, looked tentative behind the plate, and couldn’t throw. Twelve months later, he has emerged as the Nationals’ No. 1 catcher during the absence of Paul Lo Duca. In 23 at-bats, he’s hitting .348 with a .423 on-base percentage and has even pounded out his first big league home run–a game-ending blast that gave the Nats a dramatic win over the first-place this past weekend. With Nieves playing so well, Washington now faces a dilemma. Which catcher gets the axe when Lo Duca returns from the disabled list? It was supposed to be Nieves, but it might now be Johnny Estrada (who suddenly could draw interest from the Yankees, smarting from the loss of Jorge Posada). Or the Nats might do the unthinkable and carry three catchers until they can sort things out behind the plate…

Finally, longtime Latino baseball expert and author Peter Bjarkman has provided us with our first baseball card change of 2008. Peter recommends a card for Cuban standout Pedro Lazo, who just become Cuba’s all-time leader in pitching victories. Lazo was also the pitcher who saved the game for Cuba against the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, launching the Cubans into the finale of the WBC in 2006. Thanks, Peter. We’ll post your card this week.

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