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Top EL talent headed for Harrisburg07/13/2010 4:19 PM ET
By Jed Weisberger / Special to MLB.com
It's not surprising that Eastern League fans voted Binghamton Mets outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis a spot in Wednesday evening's All-Star Game.
Nieuwenhuis will be in the starting lineup for the Western Division team in the contest, which will be played at Harrisburg's reconstructed Metro Bank Park.
A 23-year-old native of Ripon, Calif., who attended Azusa Pacific University, Nieuwenhuis was drafted by the Mets in the third round in 2008 and continues to make his mark as he climbs the ladder toward Citi Field.
Not only is he in the middle of a sizzling run of .468 (22-for-47) over his last 10 games, but the Binghamton star also has put together a strong first half overall, batting .305 (96-for-315) with 14 homers and 52 RBIs. His defense has been outstanding as well.
"Kirk has a lot of ability, and he works hard to improve," said first-year Binghamton manager, Tim Teufel, who also managed him at Class A Advanced St. Lucie in 2009. "We're pleased with his approach. He has a lot of talent."
Coach and prospect worked well at St. Lucie, as Nieuwenhuis hit .274 (132-for-482) with 16 homers and 71 RBIs to earn Florida State League All-Star honors.
His game has earned compliments from opposing Eastern League managers as well. His 28 doubles in 75 games show he can drive pitches into the gaps on a consistent basis.
"Certainly, I like hearing things like that about my game," said Nieuwenhuis, who is batting leadoff for the B-Mets. "Those comments are nice, but they are not going to get me to the Major Leagues -- only hard work is."
The Eastern Division team may have lost a key part of its offense, as Trenton's Brandon Laird, who ended the first half with 19 homers and was leading all of Minor League Baseball with 81 RBIs, fouled a pitch off his ankle in Monday's win at Bowie.
Laird, who was looking forward to his first professional baseball All-Star appearance, had to be helped from the field and was undergoing X-rays Monday evening. He is at best questionable for Wednesday's game.
Whether or not Laird can play, the Eastern Division will bring a potent lineup, featuring Nieuwenhuis, Reading infielders Tagg Bozied (.291, 13 HR, 55 RBI) and Matt Rizzotti (.358, 11 HR, 45 RBI), New Hampshire outfielder Eric Thames,(.276, 15 HR, 63 RBI) and New Britain outfielder Ben Revere (.300, 20 RBI).
Two strong right-handers -- New Hampshire's Kyle Drabek (9-8, 3.00), who has a no-hitter to his credit, and Binghamton's Josh Stinson (6-1, 3.31) -- are among those who will log some innings for the Eastern Division. They'll be joined by New Britain's Kyle Gibson (5-3, 3.56) and Reading's Vance Worley (8-4, 3.44), another pair of right-handers.
In the bullpen, manager Jeff Smith (New Britain) has two more reliable righties he can call on in Portland's Jason Rice (1-1, 2.95; 9 saves) and Trenton's Josh Schmidt (3-2, 2.43). The Eastern Division pitching staff does not have a southpaw.
While the Eastern Division may appear to have the edge on the hitting side, the Western Division, managed by Harrisburg's Randy Knorr, has the pitching to face the opposition down.
Knorr can tap two members of Altoona's EL-leading pitching staff -- right-hander and Eastern League ERA leader Derek Hankins (5-1, 1.39) and left-hander Rudy Owens (8-3, 3.00) -- as well as Harrisburg southpaw Tom Milone (6-5, 3.18). Erie righty Brooks Brown (7-5, 3.77) has been effective both in relief and as a starter and has tossed an EL-leading trio of complete games.
The Western Division lineup also has some pop, with a pair of hot-hitting Altoona infielders in Matt Hague (.309, 8 HR, 52 RBI) and Josh Harrison (.311, 49 RBI). Curve catcher Hector Gimenez (.310, 12 HR, 49 RBI) adds his offensive talents. The host Harrisburg Senators contribute infielders Chris Marrero (.291, 12 HR, 48 RBI), Michael Martinez (.266, 31 RBI) and Danny Espinosa (.245, 10 HR).
Akron outfielder John Drennen (.306, 35 RBIs) is also having a strong season.
The game is being played in Harrisburg's revitalized ballpark, which underwent a two-year, $45 million, top-to bottom makeover prior to this season. The setting, on City Island in the middle of the Susquehanna River -- opposite the Pennsylvania capital's downtown -- is one of the EL's most picturesque.
The ballpark's new configuration includes a left-field power alley extending to 410 feet that has made it very pitcher-friendly. The playing surface is rated among the Eastern League's best.
"I'm excited to be part of this," said Knorr. "I'm happy to be with the Eastern League's best players, and we're thrilled to show everybody our new ballpark."
NASCAR star Kevin Harvick, who will appear with NASCAR Truck Series stalwart Ron Hornaday, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch. A full day of activities, including both High School and Eastern League Home Run Derby competitions, player autograph sessions and a Family Fun Fest, is scheduled for Wednesday.