New York native Nitkowski, looking for a second life in Queens

by Steve Simineri
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The 39-year old seeks a return to the majors with the Mets

The name may sound familiar; 39 year old southpaw C.J. Nitkowski , who played in Flushing during the 2001 season is quietly working his way back with Triple-A Buffalo, after being promoted from the Mets Double-A affiliate on Monday.

Since last appearing in the majors with the Washington Nationals during the 2005 season, the St. John’s University graduate had played one full season for the Pirates Triple-A affiliate, two seasons in Japan, two in South Korea and another recovering from a shoulder injury, before signing a minor league deal with the Mets in July.

He auditioned for General Manager Sandy Alderson in spring training, but he didn’t receive a contract. He couldn’t get even a tryout with other clubs, so he volunteered to coach at an Atlanta high school.

But J.P. Ricciardi, who serves as a special assistant to Alderson, kept in touch and urged him to keep throwing.  Finally last month all thewaiting and hard work paid off, as hefinlly got achance to pitch for Binghamton. The Suffern, NY native and former New Jersey Prep Don Bosco star, who hadn’t pitched in Double-A since 1995, didn’t allow a run in 4 2/3 innings of work with Binghamton, while striking out 8 and holding opponents to a .071 batting average.

His stellar work earned him a promotion to the Bisons on Monday, where he’s scattered 4 hits over 2 1/3 shut-out innings. The journeyman reliever, who pitched for 8 teams over his 10 year major league career, is looking to revive his career as a side-arm specialist, after posting a 4.33 ERA in 292 big league career games.

Despite his advancing age, there’s always a need in baseball for a lefty-specialist, otherwise known as a LOOGY (Lefty One-Out Guy), because of their scarcity and high demand. And in recent years guys in their late 30’s and even early 40’s have proven to be efficient in the role. Veteran southpaws such as Arthur Rhodes, Mike Stanton, Dan Plesac, Mike Myers, Norm Charlton, and others enjoyed long careers and success in the role during the so-called ‘twilight’ years of their careers.

A prime example is 41 year-old Darren Oliver, who has re-invented himself since former Mets General Manager Omar Minaya convinced him to come out of retirement following an up and down career as a starter.Since not pitching in the majors during the 2005 season and moving to the bullpen full time he has posted a 2.70 ERA and’s been one of the most effective relievers in baseball, while appearing in the playoffs each of the last 6 years.

Even though Nitkowski’s stuff isn’t what it used to be and his fastball hovers around the mid-80’s, he’s confident he can perform similarly to sidearmers Clay Rapada, Javier Lopez, and Randy Choate, who all have gotten by without lighting up the radar guns.

While his comeback is still a long-shot and improbable, look no further than the Amazin's clubhouse for another reason for optimism.  38 year old Tim Brydak, who recently tore his anterior capsule in his left shoulder, had an even more unlikely road back.

Following Tommy John surgery a decade ago he found himself out of the game and working the overnight shift restocking the sales floor at a Target in Chicago. He spent 5 years bouncing around the minors before finally resurfacing in 2005 with the Baltimore Orioles. Since then he has proven to be a trusted lefty specialist, and’s been a key cog for Terry Collins’ bullpen over the past 2 years in the Big Apple. In the wake of his season being lost Collins could use a second reliable southpaw in the pen to aide Josh Edgin, and Nitkowski may be the best solution.

In looking to fill the void they called up 28 year old Garret Olson, who wasn’t that efficient with the Bison’s, going 4-7 in 25 games and 21 starts, with a 4.56 ERA. But his major league numbers are even worse.He holds a whopping 6.14 ERA over 103 games since appearing with the Pirates last year. Those numbers just went up after his debut with the team last night, as he allowed 4 runs in a 1/3 of an inning, leaving his ERA at a humorous 108.00.

The other candidate to fill the job is Robert Carson, who had a 4.79 ERA in 31 appearances with Binghamton, before being promoted to Buffalo a few weeks back. Since then he’s allowed only 1 earned run in 9 1/3 innings with the Bison’s, putting his name in the conversation.

With the Mets out of the playoff picture, it appears they would like to give their younger talent a shot to prove themselves, and less likely to give an aging reliever a second chance. But perhps his arm and story is something a deflated Mets clubhouse and bullpen could use during the dog days of the season.

Even if Nitkowski, the 9th pick of the 1994 draft doesn’t get back to a big league rubber, he will be seen on a mound in the big screens next April in the movie “42,” about Jackie Robinson, where he will play the role of Dutch Leonard, a pitcher for the 1947 Philadelphia Phillies.

But before an acting career or new chapter of his life begins, he would like one last crack in the majors. 

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